Kirk Harris describes Jimmy Ray, the young man he plays in his engaging, serious “Loser,” as having “nowhere to go and getting there as fast as he can.”
Yet Harris, in his directorial debut, makes the getting there involving. This $38,000 movie is rough around the edges, but it has a sound, thoughtful psychological validity and an ever-mounting sense of inevitability that command attention.
Jimmy reflects about his late mother: “If she had lived, things might have been different. . . . " Unfortunately, she died in giving birth to him, and his embittered, alcoholic Viet vet father (Norman Saleet) has been an abusive, hating parent.
Nevertheless, both he and his older brother (Jonathan Chaus) still live with their father in a drab tract house in a dull, small town (El Monte, in reality). Once the brothers shared a dangerous aimlessness, but now the older brother has straightened out and is attending junior college, which makes Jimmy feel more adrift than ever.
Taking place entirely during one summer day, “Loser” follows Jimmy, who is filled with more anger and frustration than he’s prepared to handle, in his half-hearted attempt to raise the $800 he owes the local drug supplier (Jack Rubio). In the wake of a friend’s death from an overdose, he’s been using more drugs than he’s been selling.
The strength of “Loser” lies in how Harris has been able to depict Jimmy convincingly backing away from any number of possible sources of help during the course of the day. Jimmy simply hasn’t enough inner resources, hasn’t had enough love and caring in his life and is filled with too much despair to resist proceeding down what he likely knows on some level is relentlessly self-destructive.
Harris, who is as good an actor as he is a writer and director, is able to make us care about Jimmy without resorting to special pleading. (On one count Harris underestimates his ability to tell a story with a camera: Too much of Jimmy’s soundtrack narration is flat and redundant. Erasing all but essential exposition could only strengthen the film as a whole.)
With his mother having named Jimmy and his brother after her favorite actors, James Dean and Marlon Brando, respectively, and with their father bearing the name Nick Ray, Harris is clearly going for a “Rebel Without a Cause” for the ‘90s--and he succeeds more than you might imagine.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has some violence, scenes of drug-taking and strong language.
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Kirk Harris: Jimmy Ray
Jonathon Chaus: Brandon Ray
Norman Saleet: Nick Ray
Peta Wilson: Alyssha Rourke
Chris Hollins: David Michael
A Movieworld Entertainment/the Edge Cinema release of a Don’t Count Me Out production. Writer-director Kirk Harris. Producer Peter Baxter. Executive producers Jonathon Chaus & Tina Kuykendall. Cinematographer Kent Wakeford. Music Thin White Rope, Heatmiser, Dharma Bums, Blackeyed Susans, Adolescents and Young Fresh Fellows. Art director Fred Cisterna, Franca Cereghini. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.