Los Angeles. The city is damned and neon-lit, devourer of the modern-day wanderer in search of gold and social stability, like some hip reincarnation of the Conquistadors. Pauline Kael once wrote that L.A. is the city “where people have given in to the beauty that always looks unreal.” This is ever so true about those glassy-eyed souls who leave home to settle into this pitiless city to make a dream reality, or at least come close to touching it. Director Michael Chrisoulakis’s Los Angeles Overnight is a true and raw portrait of the spirit of LA, even if the film masquerades as an engaging dark comedy—which it no less is. Flirting with surrealism, this low-budget film moves with an immersive energy and a dark heart. It takes the romanticized image of the struggling artist trying to get a call back and twists it back into its true self, full of despair and willing to indulge in the criminal netherworld.
Arielle Brachfeld plays Priscilla, a character you have met before at some point in your life. She spends most of her days seeking auditions, hoping for that one door that will open itself for her into the world of stardom. To pay the bills she waitresses at a diner named after Marilyn Monroe. She has little choice than to trust in her agent, who councils her to “stop sweating desperation and start sweating ‘come hither.’” A motivational ambiance comes from Priscilla’s hypnotherapist, Vedor Ph.D., played by Peter Bogdanovich, who brandishes statements such as, “You expand, feel the ocean inside, every ounce of you hungry, not for food, but for sustenance.” There is scant hope for romance in the form of Benny (Azim Rizk), a somewhat clueless mechanic with a good heart. When Priscilla overhears some offbeat patrons at the diner speak of a plan in strange, coded lingo, she follows their clues on her own. It results in an opportunity to fund her dreams with ill-gotten gains, though nothing in this city, and especially in noir, is free. This is particularly true when she finds her takings belong to a ruthless, local gangster by the name of Wooks (Julian Bane).
Los Angeles, deservedly or not, finds itself a conduit for much of the nation’s pop dreams, nightmares, suspicions and doubts, and therefore embodies the very idea of the most important art form of the last century—cinema. The chance to become an enduring icon rendered large on screens both big and small—and to obtaining in that very pursuit one’s claim to fame and covetous fortunes–encapsulate the fires of imagination this city stokes. Yet it is precisely this delusion-as-daydream which reveals Los Angeles to be a perfect example of the American façade. For every opulent street there is a tent city, and for every story of success there are countless failures where dreams too quickly fade and lives wither quietly off into back-alleyed anonymity.
The actual Hollywood has been for years a cold, stark set of streets appropriately fit for a post-apocalyptic novel, and if the march of gentrification alters the façade a bit, it nonetheless shuttles the poor, the nameless, and those without shelter to yet another forsaken area of the metropolis. This truth lies at the heart of key films about Los Angeles, from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. A film like Los Angeles Overnight has much kinship, in its own original way, with these films which frame the city as a dreamscape both gothic and alluring. Such films remain a corrective to the candy-colored delirium of a film like La La Land, which is obsessed with the romanticized struggle of the artist, yet shamelessly dismisses the sheer horror of attempting to survive in the entrails of the city, if not the truth about the city itself. It plays on nostalgia while dismissing the lessons of a film like L.A. Confidential, which knows that the violence, delicious debauchery and human corruption are at this city’s core.
Chrisoulakis reveals himself to be a filmmaker who commands a strong visual style that is both sparse ye striking. He allows Los Angeles to become a character in its nakedness, like an actress without makeup. Shooting in a stripped down digital format, the streets, alleys, rundown shopping zones and gritty diners reveal L.A. as it truly is, and Chrisoulakis likewise wonderfully captures the actual, quirky lifestyle of L.A. with the eye of an anthropologist. Priscilla jogs and jogs up a hill overlooking the city, staying fit for a city dominated by looks. A director turns her down for a part with the absurdly pretentious lingo of, “you’re like butter, but not what I’m looking for. You’re like honey, but not what I’m looking for.” Illuminated, delusional friends gleefully utter to Priscilla, “I’m SAG now!” Anyone who has covered a fashion event in Los Angeles recognizes the vapid, vacant stares and almost cartoonish attitudes of overblown self-importance.
Casting choices here are key. Priscilla as played by Brachfeld has the look and tone of an absolute dreamer determined to become a famous actress because there is simply nothing else in her mind. We never hear her actually discuss film as an art form, although she does seeks out acting classes when she becomes suddenly flush. Her devotion to the craft, however, seems to have little actual discipline (in one scene she practices her lines by reading them on her phone while driving). She is brilliantly written to embody the modern Los Angelino of a certain age and background, begging her father for money to pay the rent even when he essentially pleads for her to return home. L.A. is a city with countless inhabitants who don’t actually need to stay there; they insist on remaining to pursue the dogged demand to be someone in the industry. When a co-worker insists Priscilla give Benny a chance she laments that he’s not even a writer, and instead daydreams of marrying a powerful producer who will get her into the business. The screenplay by Guy J. Jackson (who also plays the part of the film’s autistic ruffian-assassin in a manner not too distant from Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface), might sound like it is satirizing the way these people think (“I went out with a writer. That was as exciting as living in a world of fiction by the person doing the fictionalizing”), but this is indeed how this city speaks. Poor Benny will soon be pulled into Priscilla’s scheme, because dreamers have a way of trapping others in their reverie. Jackson’s ear is on the Mother Tongue, and his screenplay perceptively captures the bizarre, cryptic way people talk these days. I came across a selfie on social media the other day in which a tired-eyed student wrote, “I always seek the bread crumb near my eye.”
Wooks (Julian Bane) and Abelie (Ashley Park) in a cookies and milk moment with their son.
The canvas in which Priscilla wanders is an atmospheric one, where the look, writing and tone create the sort of eerie yet addictive experience of a Lynch film. Bogdanovich’s hypnotic session codas, layered over the narrative through-out the movie, embody the very voice of the New Age-tinged mindset driving most of the city’s millennials (“Look to the celestial, you are many shards in all that you can see”). Living in a terrain where the rent is increasingly if not extortionally higher and hopes depend on vague and often vaporous opportunities, there is an obsession with insisting on the self-motivational. Doubts and negative thoughts are to be cast aside as simply as dispensing with an unsavory history. One result of this is that many inhabitants of Los Angeles are indeed surreal specimens. Wooks the gangster, the assassin dispatched to get back his riches, the hypnotherapist, and even Priscilla all have an otherworldly, exaggerated sense or look to them. They inhabit a world where looks and image are everything, and so they carry about as if they are playing parts in a movie every day. There is a wonderful scene where Wooks teaches his son a lesson in snitching, by placing a plate of Oreos in front of him and tempting him with the cookies to give up a name. Wooks’s wife, Abelie (Ashley Park), sits on a couch—in full pose like the diva she believes she is–uttering controlled lines obviously rehearsed in her head. Yet while it may seem strange, it really isn’t. Criminals and innocents alike, no one is immune to the miasmic influence of L.A.’s movie culture. Scan your Instagram and the photos, comments and self-adulation perfectly epitomize much of the behavior in this fiercely acute movie. A wonderful character played by Sally Kirkland tells Priscilla about the good old days when she played a part in Cleopatra and ate with the extras. Some are fated to relive those small little moments where they came close to the living fantasy.
Los Angeles Overnight could be described as a noir, a genre more than appropriate for the film’s storyline and setting. And, indeed, dangerous men lurk in shadows. Wooks is not beyond stabbing an old lady to get his revenge. More essentially, no one, as with any good noir, is innocent in this film, nor are there any true winners. A master stroke comes at the end when Priscilla learns that even in deciding to take a different, criminal route, she can’t escape having to pay the rent, only now with higher stakes.
JamieLee Ackerman as Elsa, the ruthless (and brilliant!) casting director.
Yet aside from its anthropological musings on contemporary Los Angeles and its denizens, Los Angeles Overnight is worth seeing because it is a sharp combination of humor and focused craft. It is offbeat in a refreshing style and presents a character both loveable and worthy of our pity. Priscilla feels absolutely real, even while walking around a world that can become quite chimerical and hallucinatory. We can bask in the film’s stripped down style because the story is so good, and its visual style carries right into its environment. For once here is the city of dreams without bombast, sepia tones or delusional flash. Beneath the glitz and glamour, simply getting a call-back is a frustrating affair amid the demands of just getting by. There are many dreamers in Los Angeles, but dreams have a way of devouring their children.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.