Monday, September 08, 2008

ACE Film Fest: The Big Shot Caller

While deeply rooted in the cultural environment of 1970’s El Barrio, salsa music has used evolving strategies to appeal to an emerging transnational market. That will be the stuff of an upcoming review of Christopher Washburne’s Sounding Salsa, but it is largely superfluous to Marlene Rhein’s salsa-flavored indy drama, The Big Shot Caller (trailer here), which concluded this year’s ACE Film Fest.

For protagonist Jaime Lessor, salsa simply represents freedom, passion, and a brief respite from being an uptight white guy. However, uncharitable reactions to an unfortunate eye condition (Nystagmus) caused him to bury his dancing ambitions, instead immersing himself in wage-slave drudgery. His family support system is nearly non-existent. He rarely visits a father who only cares about his next poker game, and he is avoiding his estranged sister Lianne, who ran away from home fifteen years ago.

At first, Lessor only agrees to see Lianne to get advice about a rare romantic prospect, Elissa, an Upper Manhattan party girl. It is pretty clear Lessor and Elissa are not going to work, but she is a woman giving him attention, so he falls hard. When the inevitable happens, it sends him into a personal tailspin. Depressed and unemployed, he turns to the only one who will take him in: his sister.

At its heart, Caller is a sibling story more than anything else. Music does play a significant role in the story, but it never eclipses the personal drama. The big dance comes and goes, but life goes on. Salsa fans might be a bit disappointed the music is not more prominent in the film, but they will enjoy hearing up-and-coming salsa band La Excelencia perform two tunes.

Jaime and Lianne Lessor are played by real-life brother-and-sister David and writer-director Marlene Rhein. They are indeed convincing in the roles, as one would expect. Marlene Rhein, a former music video director who worked with the likes of 2Pac Shakur and Amy Winehouse, helms with considerable sensitivity and uses New York locations to good effect. As a screenwriter, she steers clear of easy sentiment and delivers some of the film’s best lines as Lianne.

At times Caller is painfully believable to watch. Life can be that way. It is strong feature debut for the Rheins that deserves to find an audience as it plays the festival circuit.