Within the first few minutes of the well-meaning but misguided "Mi Vida Loca," we've come to know two appealing Latinas, Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) and Mousie (Seidy Lopez), who've been friends from childhood, growing up in Echo Park and joining a gang, a kind of ladies' auxiliary for the local male gang. But now Sad Girl and Mousie have become deadly enemies, all set for a potentially fatal showdown to resolve their rivalry for the same young man, Ernesto (Jacob Vargas), who has fathered a child out of wedlock with each of them.
Ernesto, who's moved from grocery clerking to drug dealing, however, is shot fatally by a disgruntled customer, one of the "white" women he holds in such contempt, before his own women can gun each other down. They mourn Ernesto, but their mutual relief is tremendous: Now they don't have to try to kill each other anymore and can go back to being best friends.
What's going on here? Two lifelong friends, both with infants, prepared to snuff out each other's lives all because of their love for a glib charmer whom we have every reason to assume would take up with yet another woman in a flash. Can their gang's code of behavior have them in such an iron grip that they cannot conceive an alternative to such a drastic course of action?
Writer-director Allison Anders, who made such a mark with the knowing "Gas Food Lodging," has treated this entire episode with a deft, rueful, suspenseful humor, but goes on to confirm rather than dispel our impression that these two young women and all their friends are none too bright. One young woman, a college student who's avoided gang life, goes off into delirious flights of romantic fancy over her epistolary romance with a prisoner she has never even met. With all good intentions, Anders has ended up confirming a decidedly negative stereotype of young Latinos as aimless, dangerous, and incapable of thinking for themselves, not to mention welfare-dependent. As a result, "Mi Vida Loca" is downright offensive.
What Anders meant to do is clear enough: to show a bunch of young Latinas gradually grasping that they can only count upon each other in the face of the dire mortality rate of their young men and to start considering questioning those men to whom they are so blindly obedient. Yet when one of their friends, Giggles (Marlo Marron), comes out of prison after four years for having taken a rap for her boyfriend, saying self-consciously that "Computers are the key to the future," the effect of her statement is comical when it should seem serious to us, if not her friends.
You respect Anders' impulse not to judge, but her context and characters are simply too shallow not to make most everyone seem foolish. While it has gorgeous camera work (by "Danzon's" Rodrigo Garcia) and some great music, "Mi Vida Loca" desperately needs to suggest the impact of the historical, social, economic, religious and cultural forces that shape the lives of these young women and their behavior and values. It just isn't enough to depict their touching loyalty to each other and their loving devotion to their children.
Do they have dreams or aspirations? Did they ever have jobs or want them? (None seem to be employed.) How much pressure is there on them to join gangs? Is criminal activity an individual affair or organized or both? Is there no viable alternative to gangs in the community? How easy or difficult is it to leave them? Do these homegirls and homeboys ever do much of anything except hang out? In the entire group is there not a single individual capable of making a concentrated effort to escape gang life and its perils? Or are the forces of discrimination, the lack of opportunity, chronic poverty, so overwhelming that they feel their situation is hopeless?
You sense that Anders wanted to make another film like "Gas Food Lodging" in praise of female solidarity in the face of male unreliability, but when the women are Latina gang girls she trivializes them by avoiding all the questions their identity and situation inescapably raise. (Curiously, the press book for the film has far more substance, more enlightenment, than the film itself).
More than anything else, "Mi Vida Loca" makes the case for how important it is that ethnic and minority filmmakers get the opportunity to tell the stories of their own people.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, and for sexual content and language. Times guidelines: It contains adult themes and situations.
'Mi Vida Loca'
('My Crazy Life')
Angel Aviles: Sad Girl
Seidy Lopex: Mousie
Jacob Vargas: Ernesto
Giggles Marlo: Marron
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Allison Anders. Producers Daniel Hassid, Carl-Jan Colpaert. Executive producers Christoph Henkel, Colin Callender. Cinematographer Rodrigo Garcia. Editors Kathryn Himoff, Tracy Granger. Costumes Susan Bertram. Music John Taylor. Production designer Jane Stewart. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.