“It’s all about the girls, and the girls do nothing for the neighborhood,” sniffs Tricky.
Nitowl doesn’t agree: “I hear talk like that from all the guys, they always talk . . . about the girls. . . . But it’s (screwed) up, man, ‘cause we’re from the neighborhood too, we grew up here, we don’t need them.”
When Allison Anders made “Mi Vida Loca” (“My Crazy Life”), that was exactly what she wanted to show: The girls didn’t need the guys.
But this is no script. Tricky, 17, and Nitowl, 21, are talking from the other side of the screen, part of a group of mostly gang members who have seen this movie that portrays them, the homegirls and homeboys of Echo Parque.
Their comments range from frank incredulousness (“That would never happen”) to grudging acceptance (“Yeah, we’ve all done time . . . we’ve all gotten shot”); from outright criticism (“They just showed the bad things”) to recommendation (“I’d tell people to see it”).
And though flattered to see themselves up on the big screen, for many “Mi Vida” (opening Friday in general release) often hits much too close to home.
“The movie is kind of true, but . . . they should have made a neighborhood up,” complains Scrappy, 18. “Everyone’s gonna think that’s the way Echo Park is.”
In “Mi Vida,” Echo Park is a neighborhood of kids living on the edge: of teens getting pregnant and dealing drugs, of men who are “either dead, maimed or in jail” by the time they’re 21, of young people struggling and not finding a way out of a gang lifestyle.
While all this may be true, argue the kids, untold were the tales of compassion and understanding, of families supporting their children, of gang members going to school, of efforts to raise money for comrades doing time.
Though their objections might sometimes sound like quibbles, for them, they are a matter of pride and identity. Thus, the relationship in the film between Mousie (Seidy Lopez) and Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) was a point of contention for the young neighborhood women, who did not approve the severing of the characters’ friendship when both have children by the same father, Ernesto (Jacob Vargas).
“Our girlfriends get pregnant but not from the same guy,” says Liz Delgadillo, 17, who is not in a gang. “At least they have a little bit more respect than that. Some parts are fake; it’s not what would happen around here.”
It’s one of many story angles that drew that kind of reaction. Topping the list is Ernesto’s obsession with the truck he pours much of his money into, and which ends up being the prize in a deadly war between gangs.
“They’re not gonna put all their money in fixing up a car. They have more sense than that,” says Chente, who works with El Centro del Pueblo, an Echo Park-based organization that works to stop gang violence.
Adds a young man who goes by Evil: “No one is gonna get shot over a car.” The guys would fight over the neighborhood or over drug dealing, explains his friends, but “a car is a car. Everybody has one.”
The car premise never flew with the Echo Park crew, despite the fact that they reviewed Anders’ script, nixing her original scenario of two groups in the same gang fighting over the truck, and suggesting other possibilities.
Revising the script with the neighborhood youths, many of whom she recruited to work in the movie as extras or in title roles, was Anders’ modus operandum in her effort to be as faithful to reality as possible. Getting close to the girls, she says, literally took years.
“I coveted them from afar,” explains Anders. “I finally approached Whisper (Nelida Lopez, who plays herself in a leading role) because she was the youngest and looked like she might not kick my ass.”
Smokey and Nitowl, who were extras in “Mi Vida,” don’t hesitate in giving Anders her due credit. “She dared to come and talk to us when no one else would,” says Smokey. But at the same time, they are clearly ambivalent about the movie.
“To tell you the truth,” says Nitowl, “I liked (the movie), because it was about me.” But, she adds, “I’ve bumped into friends that think it’s stupid, (who say) it’s a put-down to our neighborhood.”
A rival gang member, such as the film’s El Duran (Jesse Borrego), for example, would not be cruising the area in a fancy car.
“If the whole neighborhood knows that that guy is after one of our homeboys . . . in any other neighborhood they would have shot him already,” says Evil.
Script differences aside, the youths gained respect for Anders.
“Allison did a lot for us. When we needed help, she helped us . . . and she adopted my homegirl’s son,” says Nitowl, referring to Nica Rogers, who died at 19 of an overdose a few months before the movie was finished.
“She (Nica) was a wonderful person, very mythic to the girls--the most beautiful, the most down,” says Anders, who is in the process of adopting her little boy. “He’s going to have all the chances (Nica) didn’t.”
Ironically, one of the biggest gripes about “Mi Vida” is the fact that the movie depicts the characters as having no interaction with their families.
“You don’t see the extension of the other family members,” says social worker Willie Martinez, who also works with El Centro del Pueblo. “But those family members are with them constantly. They’re the ones who bail them out of jail, who visit them in jail, who take them to school and try to get them back in.”
And for those trying to go beyond gang life, “Mi Vida” doesn’t offer much hope, which is not what young women like Smokey want to hear.
“Now I don’t like the idea of people seeing me like that, ‘cause I’m getting my (act) together, and I’m thinking about the future,” she says. “We used to steal cars and . . . we could get money buying and selling drugs, but now . . . I’m gonna go back to school and get myself a job.”
Anders, however, didn’t want to sugarcoat her ending. “I feel the upbeat ending is up to the audience,” says the filmmaker. “I don’t want people to walk out of the movie and say, ‘OK, everything’s fine.’ ”