East of Hope Street
1998, NR, 88 min. Directed by Nate Thomas. Starring Tim Russ, Magda Rivera, Greer Bohanon, Asanio Lara, Roxanne Coyne, Jade Herrera.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 27, 1999
East of Hope Street took a misguided turn somewhere back around Script Street and, as a result, wanders aimlessly down blind alleys in search of … well, that's a good question. The movie is a well-meaning but ineffectual drama that treats the importance of its social issues as though they're all that matters in telling a good story. It's earnest in its presentation of appalling conditions, but it comes off more like a social tract that uses human stand-ins as lifelike representations of dry numbers and statistics. East of Hope Street tells the story of 15-year-old Alicia Montalvo (Herrera), who escapes the civil violence in her native El Salvador to live in Los Angeles with her younger brother and crack-addict aunt. It is only the beginning of Alicia's Job-like journey. Her travails are compounded when the illegal sweatshop in which she works is raided. Escaping the INS raid, she is beaten by her junkie aunt when she comes home without cash. At school, her bruises are noticed and child welfare authorities, who eventually step in to place her in a foster home, separating Alicia and her brother. At the foster home she is led astray by the family's other foster daughter. Not only that, but she also falls victim to a sexual predator. Then, while out cruising one night with her boyfriend and some friends, they're popped by the police for driving a stolen vehicle. Whew … and that's only the first third of the movie. There's the pregnancy, the group home for pregnant teens, the house bully, another rape, a shooting, and so on. It's more bad stuff than one human being should have to bear. And that's the movie's unsubtle point. And though the movie has won some festival awards (most notably the Jury Award at the Hollywood Black Film Festival '99), the overwrought story is not well-served by the film's rudimentary techniques of construction. The acting is tentative, the blocking utilitarian, and the visual imagery an inconsistent jumble. Although it claims to be based on a true story, one suspects that the story of this modern-day snake pit is limned with heart-wrenching embellishments and an extremely compressed time span. The story is, in its fashion, a testament to the human spirit, but its details are so flimsy as to make them unbelievable, thus negating the overriding message of the movie. The film is the work of director Nate Thomas (who teaches film at USC) and actor Tim Russ (who currently plays Officer Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager). Together they co-wrote the script and Russ appears in the film as Alicia's understanding social worker. Perhaps the most damning thing East of Hope Street can be faulted for is its effort to take on too much. The strain causes it to lose all credibility.