Oliver is the baby of the family. But you wouldn't know it from the way the thirteen-year-old boy smokes, drinks and wisecracks his way through Steve Clark's visually assured sophomore feature "Night Has Settled," which world-premiered this weekend at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
Set in 1983 New York, the indie drama sits somewhere between the films of Larry Clark and the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer on the scale of adolescent coming-of-age ickiness. It's uncomfortable yet tender, droll yet tragic, and often at the same time.
In a cramped flat, Oliver (Spencer List) lives with his single mom Luna (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), his older sister (Courtney Baxter) and live-in nanny Aida (Adriana Barraza, Oscar-nominated for playing another nanny in "Babel"). Oliver rolls with a rough crowd of smoking, drinking, oversexed kids well into their teens. His Bohemian artist mother isn't around much and when she is, they share frank discussions of sex and relationships that are, at first, startling. Hopelessly attached to Aida, he regards her as his true mother while keeping Luna at a distance, addressing her by her first name.
After Aida suffers a stroke, which writer/director Clark foreshadows, Oliver slips into a fugue state of more drinking, more drugs, more sex and more acting out. It's hard to watch him tumble through life, but young List carries the role bravely, embodying all the fury, confusion and quixotism of being 13. (Think Owen Kline's early bloomer in "The Squid and the Whale," another dysfunctional New York family film that comes to mind here.)
Where "Night Has Settled" succeeds best is in the language, the left-unsaids and what-might-have-beens between characters, and in the disquieting textures of a too-close mother/son relationship. Clark, with a background in literature as a former editor of The Paris Review, never overwrites the film's most emotional scenes, even if he overplays them via slow-motion montage and a portentous score.
Well-acted and evocative of early-1980s New York, "Night Has Settled" should enjoy a healthy life on the festival circuit, and with enough word-of-mouth and known quantity Barraza, could find an openminded audience. It is seeking distribution.