Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Filmmakers: North Dixie Drive

The very name is contradictory. Dayton, Ohio’s North Dixie Drive used to circumscribe a bustling business district, but it has fallen on hard times. Always hardworking and sometimes eccentric, the diverse group of Ohioans scratching out their livings on the commercial loop are profiled in Eric Mahoney’s North Dixie Drive (trailer here), which screens this coming Tuesday as part of the NYC New Filmmakers series at the Anthology Film Archives.

The once bustling Dixie Donuts is now eerily empty. As goes the donut shop, so goes the neighborhood. Times are tough indeed, but there is still money to be made on North Dixie, at least for some. The strippers clear decent tips and two enterprising men have carved out a profitable niche as automotive repo-men. Scrupulously professional yet philosophical about a business dependent on others’ misfortunes, Adam Sampson and Lando Lakes are two of the film’s more intriguing figures. Of course, there are also the colorful types like Gary Hull, an eccentric folksinger (for lack of a better term).

Amidst this racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood, Zeke Levi emerges as the film’s protagonist (he is also the director’s father-in-law). An Iraqi-Israeli immigrant, Zeke and his wife Iris appear to have maintained the Traffic Circle Tire Center as a going concern, despite the inhospitable economic climate. Remembering their early hardships, they often extend a helping hand to their neighbors, including their manager, Herbert Agee, Jr. In fact, NDD might be the most sympathetic portrayal of Israelis to hit New York screens so far this year.

While Agee’s scenes are surprisingly touching, NDD occasionally hints at a mocking impulse that is a bit problematic. However, the scenes of the low-rent IPWA wrestling matches, featuring some of the whitest men in the world as supposed Middle Eastern terrorists, make one wonder if it is all just a gag at Mahoney’s expense.

For those of us with roots in Ohio (mighty Springfield half an hour east on I-70), NDD will bring it all rushing back. At its best, it captures the generous spirit and work ethic of Middle America. Those who dig the song stylings of Gary Hull should also be advised to stay for the stinger when NDD screens next Tuesday (4/5) at the Anthology Film Archives.