Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 6, 2015
I haven’t been everywhere but I’ve been some places, some pretty good places. At the top of the Eiffel Tower. in the labyrinth of the Dorsodura in Venice, gazing down into the belly of the Coliseum in Rome. idling on Carnaby Street in London and Central Park in New York and meandering without purpose in Amsterdam. I’ve been on a thousand thrill rides and in a thousand carnival fairways and more houses of horrors than churches but I don’t think of them all that often. When my mind wants to go to somewhere special, some place that has value, like treasure, like magic… I find myself in the most mundane of places. With my mother in the supermarket as a kid in the 60s or watching my then-girlfriend/now-wife water plants on the fire escape of her then-apartment on the Upper East Side in the late 90s (a moment that lasted for mere seconds, but which has stayed with me for nearly 20 years), or gazing at the green, green grass of a field somewhere one day in the 70s, or feeling the first breeze of summer come in through the open window of my Yorkville tenement apartment on some anonymous Saturday morning of the New Millennium, a day which holds for me no other memories. I remember colors and smells and far off sounds and what was on the radio that one time and I think it’s this inclination towards favoring sensation over sensational that brings me back to the films of Jim Akin. The LA-based filmmaker’s second feature, THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE (2015), is having its world premiere at the Egyptian Theatre (under the auspices of the American Cinematheque) in Hollywood on Friday, May 8th, at 7:30pm.
Whereas Akin’s AFTER THE TRIUMPH OF YOUR BIRTH (2012) hoofed it all over the City of Angels to depict a populace in search of meaning, THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE sticks for the most part to “the perfect dead end” of Venice Beach. Movies set in Venice, movies that actually take place there (rather than use the location as a backdrop for a scene or two) tend to have a philosophical bent — you might think CISCO PIKE (1972) or CRIME AND PUNISHMENT USA (1959), NIGHT TIDE (1962), or even PUMPING IRON (1977), but I’m not forgetting DEMENTIA (aka DAUGHTER OF HORROR, 1955) and even TOUCH OF EVIL (1957), which was set in Mexico but filmed unmistakably in Abbot Kinney’s “Venice of America.” The same is true for THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE, which takes its name from that of its 12 year-old protagonist (Moriah Blonna), who announces at the top of the film that “this will be the summer where everything takes shape.” The shape-less-ness to which she refers is the aftermath of her mother’s death and her current relationship with her aimless father, which leaves her wanting answers, certainty, and a direction to point herself. Hel (as her father calls her) is at a crossroads, no longer easily lulled or fobbed off with jokes, “getting a little long for the closet” that is her womb-like sanctuary in her father’s Bohunk crash pad — a bit like Temple Grandin’s stress-relieving hug box but the door won’t shut anymore.
Despite the practical absence of her mother (Maria McKee), Helena does feel the presence of both parents and is able to — or perhaps must — balance the bottle cap koans (“Loosen up a little and enjoy the ride!”) of her burnout father (Tom Dunne), who has cheated death at least once in his life (we are encouraged to wonder whether he might have caused his wife’s death but that itch is never satisfactorily scratched) and who now lives in a sort of karmic arrears, with soothing bromides (“The world can never hold you under..,. always higher than the world’s dark end”) from her ghostly materfamilias. Part of the power of THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE is that we are encouraged to wonder which voice is potentially more damaging to the sensitive and smart but of course terribly vulnerable heroine: the drunken rap of her surf rat of an old man (who validates his rootless, purposeless existence by dragging his kid to Century City for the express purpose of smack talking the nine to fivers) or her late mother’s insistence that she is special, that she matters, in the face of a world that isn’t mean but clearly doesn’t care.
THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE belongs to a heartfelt class of movies preoccupied with a child’s perception of his or her parents’ failures and it sits proudly alongside the likes of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), THE EFFECTS OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS (1972), both versions of THE CHAMP, AMERICAN HEART (1992), and others… and yet the movie that came to my mind most demonstrably during its final frames was THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), as Helena accepts the smallness and relative insignificance of her existence but takes comfort in, and chooses to define herself by, her potential for infinite growth. Jim Akin movies — if these two can be said to be representative — pull you all over the place. Watching THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE I found myself bewildered, baffled, frustrated, annoyed, charmed, moved, and sporadically critical… but in the end, after everything could be seen in its proper context and noting that I had suffered less than everyone else in the story, all was forgiven… and if that’s not the magic of the movies then I don’t know what is.
Check the American Cinematheque website for additional playdates, both at the Egyptian and the Aero in Santa Monica. There will be live music accompaniment following all screenings!
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