Director Mike Ott returns to the Los Angeles Film Festival with “Lake Los Angeles,” the third film in what has become known as his Antelope Valley trilogy. Following the dovetailing paths of an older male Cuban immigrant, and a young female Mexican immigrant, “Lake Los Angeles” is a dreamy slice of desert sun-baked magical realism. With captivating performances by the two leads, Roberto Sanchez and Johanna Trujillo, a hypnotic sound design, and light-saturated cinematography, Ott’s film casts a spell while also remaining firmly rooted in the realities of that life.
Francisco (Sanchez) is a Cuban immigrant who has found himself away from his wife and children on that tropical island, trapped in land locked inland California. He works some pick up yard work jobs here and there, but his main source of income comes from providing a temporary safe house to illegal immigrants transported by coyote Adria (Eloy Mendez). Francisco is thoughtful, cerebral and contemplative about his situation in life, often speaking to his wife via tape recorder, musing on memories, hopes and dreams, this one-sided conversation serving as the voice-over narration for the film. This monologue underscores his daily life of manual labor, lonely beers, visits to prostitutes, and furtive human trafficking.
Francisco is fond of one of his small charges, the moody and silent Cecilia (Trujillo). She doesn’t eat, doesn’t talk, just stares at her little snow globe. She seems to be alone, and Francisco wants to get her back to her family, so he entrusts Adria to return Cecilia to her father, letting her go off with him alone. But as soon as they are in the van, Adria confesses he has no idea where her father is, and that Cecilia is going to just come along with him. He’s a terrible kidnapper though, leaving her in the car for a bathroom break, and the poker-faced Cecilia makes a break for it, finding herself a little shelter in a burned-out old cabin in the desert.
Oblivious, Francisco continues going about his solitary daily life, picking up odd jobs, housing more immigrants, recording messages for his wife. Cecilia, meanwhile, struggles to survive, camped out in her desert shelter, shoplifting food from a nearby bodega. The film focuses on these two lost souls drifting along this lonely, hardscrabble landscape, beset with memories, hallucinations, fears, and anxiety. There are moments where they just miss each other at a thrift store or swap meet, Francisco lost in a daydream, Cecilia hyper-vigilant about her visibility in this space. They are both seeking a home, and finding it hard to do that, Cecilia needing protection and shelter, Francisco searching for his love, his soul.
As the tight-lipped Cecilia, Trujillo is simply a revelation. She’s entirely compelling on screen, exuding a wisdom and presence beyond her years. Her whispered stories and voice-over lend to the mystical, dreamy effect of the film, and she evokes the feeling of an old soul. Sanchez is also a treat to watch, giving a performance that embodies both the soulful and dejected qualities of Francisco. He seems helpless in many ways, subject to the whims of others, and he seems to be grasping at something that keeps evading him: love, money, status.
As mentioned, the sound design and editing create a hypnotic effect: the desert wind and atmospheric thump of churning industrial windmills combining with score to create an eerie, almost alien sound quality. The film, while structured along a distinct linear narrative, progresses forward in a series of dissolves, lens flares, POV shots, and narration in a way that both speeds up and slows down time, involving the environment of this place in a way that feels fully incorporated into the aesthetic and the narrative. The place is the story and the story is this place. That the film feels this honed, this of-a-piece in June when much of it was shot in April is kind of astonishing. A very fine, and affecting effort from Ott and screenwriting partner Atsuko Okatsuka (as well as cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and editor Santos S. Santos), “Lake Los Angeles” brings to life a place and experience that is so close, yet so far from Los Angeles itself. [A-]