Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Salsa Cinema: Big Shot-Caller

While deeply rooted in the cultural environment of 1970’s El Barrio, salsa music has developed a truly international appeal. It also has a passionate rhythmic drive perfect for dancing that directly appeals to the awkward protagonist of Marlene Rhein’s salsa-flavored indie drama, The Big Shot Caller (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For protagonist Jaime Lessor, salsa simply represents freedom, passion, and a brief respite from being an uptight white guy. However, his unfortunate eye condition (Nystagmus) leads him to bury his dancing ambitions, instead immersing himself in wage-slave drudgery. Lessor’s family ties are also severely frayed. He rarely visits a father who only cares about his next poker game, and he is doggedly avoiding his estranged sister Lianne, who ran away from home fifteen years ago.

Initially, 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 suddenly unemployed, he turns to the only one who will take him in: his wayward hipster sister. At first, the ungrateful loser is miserable to be around, but slowly he and Lianne re-establish their relationship.

At its heart, Caller is a sibling story more than anything else. Music does play a significant role, 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 Rhein 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 excellent effect. As a screenwriter, she steers clear of easy sentiment and delivers some of the film’s best lines as the sarcastic but vulnerable Lianne.

At times Caller is painfully believable—life can be that way. It is strong feature debut for the Rheins, nicely enhanced by the salsa flavor and New York attitude. A favorite at last year’s New York Latino and ACE Film Festivals, Caller starts its regular theatrical run Friday(5/15) in New York at the Quad Cinema.