Thursday, July 23, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Fruit Fly

If you envision the Broadway show Rent without the tragedy, you will have a pretty good sense of H.P. Mendoza’s latest movie musical. It might be set in San Francisco’s Castro District instead of Alphabet City, but the Bohemian spirit is the same in Fruit Fly (trailer here), the closing feature of the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival (which starts tonight with Ivy Ho’s excellent Claustrophobia).

In the film, “Fruit Fly” is suggested as a less derogatory term for a woman who befriends gay men almost exclusively. Bethesda suddenly finds it applied to her, after moving to San Francisco and becoming fast friends with her gay roommate Windham and his circle. They do not break it to her gently either, explaining it to her in a song with the more traditional soubriquet “Fag Hag.”

After a sojourn in the Philippines, Bethesda has come to town in hopes of mounting her one-woman performance-art piece about her search for her birth mother. Almost everyone staying in Bethesda’s Real World-like house harbors artistic ambitions, inspiring some amusing cynicism from their decidedly un-hippy landlord, Tracy.

While Mendoza was the composer, lyricist, and screenwriter for the Indie circuit favorite Colma: the Musical, he also takes the directorial reins in Fly. Musically, the results are a little uneven. Frankly, the intentionally comedic songs are not particularly memorable. However, it starts with an enjoyably upbeat opener, “Public Transit,” and can claim at least one legitimate standout song, “You Do This for a Reason,” that should become an anthem for frustrated artists everywhere.

Despite her character’s many annoying moments, L.A. Renigen shows an easy likability and decent vocal chops as Bethesda. Her housemates are more of a mixed bag though. Some turn in quite solid supporting work, like E.S. Park and Theresa Navarro as the resident lesbian couple, while others do not acquit themselves as well. However, there are some truly rich comedic performances by Don Wood as the crusty landlord and Christina Augello as the bane of his existence: “Dirty Judy,” the rent controlled upstairs tenant. “I’m the reason apartments are so expensive,” she profanely gloats in a sharply written, economically informed scene.

Anytime a filmmaker creates an original movie musical, you have to give credit for their ambition. While a bit hit-or-miss, Mendoza still succeeds fairly often in Fly. It closes this year’s AAIFF this Sunday night (7/26) at the Clearview Chelsea Theater.