Other independent dramas use the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as emotional background but few with the skillful subtlety as first-time director Cruz Angeles in “Don’t Let Me Drown.” While primarily a young love story, arguably the most overly familiar of movie genres, “Don’t Let Me Drown,” premiering in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is also an immigrant tale and an honest look at the Latino and Caribbean communities that help make New York City the vibrant place it is today.
Angeles and co-writer Maria Topete mix themes regarding loss, anger and the struggle to cope despite meager resources. More importantly, “Don’t Let Me Drown” is a story about love that survives, the story of Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) and his girlfriend Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa). While guaranteed to play well with New York audiences, solid word-of-mouth should help “Don’t Let Me Drown” crossover to all specialty audiences.
Numerous pressures bombard high school students Lalo (Bonilla) and Stefanie (Inoa) as they discover love for the first time. Lalo’s Mexican immigrant family is trying to survive financially. His father (Damian Alcazar), a World Trade Center janitor, now works cleaning the debris after the 9/11 attacks. Lalo’s mother (Yareli Arizmendi) sells homemade tamales on the street in order to make ends meet.
Stefanie’s Dominican family moved to Brooklyn after her sister was killed in the attacks. Her father (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) has yet to recover from his daughter’s death and his temper threatens his wife (Gina Torres) and Stefanie.
Newcomers EJ Bonialla and Gleendilys Inoa are charismatic and engaging as Lalo and Stefanie. Bonialla is sweet natured in his pursuit of Stefanie, while Inoa responds with spark and attitude as a means to hide her character’s vulnerability. “Don’t Let Me Drown” is primarily a coming-of-age tale and the fresh, easygoing performances of its young leads play a large part in its success.
Veteran actress Gina Torres, well known for her work on TV’s “The Shield” and “Standoff” and Ricardo Antonio Chavira, best known for his role on TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” complement the film’s young leads with their confidence and maturity. Together, they help comprise the believable families important to the film’s story.
A powerful scene set at an outdoor birthday party where the police aggressively arrest a man, captures the fears and paranoia that are part of Lalo and Stefanie’s world.
While its performances play a significant role, “Don’t Let Me Drown” stands out as a director’s piece, a movie that thrives on the artful skills of its Brooklyn-based filmmaker.
Cruz finds beauty in the urban decay of Brooklyn and with cameraman Chad Davidson creates easygoing visuals that perfectly match Stefanie’s swagger as she walks to school and Lalo breezing through city neighborhoods on his bike. He also makes perfect use of the Brooklyn rooftops as emblems of Lalo and Stefanie’s modest lives and the glittering Manhattan skyline as hope for the future.
This skyline may also work as a symbol for Angeles, a filmmaker hopefully headed to bigger and better things.