It can be dizzying to keep up with exactly where “Ayar” is going from moment to moment. Part psychological thriller, part immigration drama, part meta commentary on the nature of performance and the act of creation, Floyd Russ’ feature is a daring experiment unafraid of alienating its audience — only to reel them back in with an intoxicatingly sinister atmosphere and a marvelous, unhinged lead performance. The movie follows singer and actress Ayar (Ariana Ron Pedrique), now out of work due to the pandemic, as she tries to reconnect with the young daughter she abandoned for stardom years ago. But what begins as seemingly Yet Another COVID Movie about everyday people grappling with lockdown mutates into something else entirely.
Ayar’s choice to leave her family, all dispersed Central American immigrants now living in Los Angeles, for a sleazy singing gig in Las Vegas wasn’t, we learn, entirely hers. As flashbacks reveal, she was pulled into a kind of Pygmalion setup by an older man (Simon Haycock) with connections, deep pockets, and a penthouse with a view. But when she became pregnant, the relationship fizzled dramatically. This toxic transactional affair will prove ruinous for Ayar’s future. Now, in present day, she is estranged from her daughter, who lives with her mother Renata (Vilma Vega). With work scarce in COVID-riddled Los Angeles, Ayar must sell her soul as a housekeeper for a Beverly Hills type (never shown on camera) with white walls and blankly sleek furniture to match.
Meanwhile, she’s living in a crummy hole of a motel, with walls and ceilings quiet literally crawling with vines which snake and sinew from the bathtub and the sink. It’s a very on-the-nose metaphor for the spreading of COVID-19, but also for a metastasizing unwellness. Ayar shares foreboding words with the motel’s superintendent Foster (Henry Foster Brown) over beers one night, but her detached delivery suggests a woman coming unglued. “A virus can only grow if it has life — infiltrate, take over, and multiply — until it consumes all life and destroys everything it needs.”
Here’s when the movie starts to break down, and Russ’ more traditional narrative explodes into a kaleidoscopic, meta documentary about the making of the movie itself, with each of the actors serving as talking heads over Zoom. Ariana Ron Pedrique talks about her early life as a child star growing up in and out of Venezuela, while Vilma Vega shares her own hardships as an immigrant to Los Angeles from Peru. Russ doesn’t always successfully thread the needle between the movie within the movie and the meta documentary at play, but it’s fascinating to watch him and his cast swing big. Russ and editor Brad Turner even integrate the actors’ auditions into the piece. (Russ conceived of the story and hired newcomers to fill the roles during the pandemic.)
It’s natural Russ would head in this direction, as his background stems from short-form documentaries like “Zion,” a 12-minute film about a wrestler with no legs, but “Ayar” is his first narrative feature. It’s impossible not to share in his palpable fascination with leading star Ariana Ron Pedrique, who plunges head-first into the physical and emotional particulars of a slow-motion breakdown: paranoia, mania, and lipstick-smeared laughter are all characters in her “Repulsion”-esque unraveling. But she’s also given a dose of humanity, as in a late-breaking sequence where Pedrique plays and sings a piano ballad, addressing the audience in one of the film’s many fourth-wall-breaking flourishes.
The more traditional movie first established, and the thriller territory in which it heads, is never as interesting as the more ambitious tricks Russ is up to — even if they don’t entirely cohere. That some of the more saccharine plot points, like Ayar’s affection for her daughter which briefly turns maddening, are dropped in service of weirder pursuits is almost a relief.
One thing “Ayar” does capture is the bleak spirit of Los Angeles during the pandemic: empty streets gilded with trash up and down the sidewalks, tented encampments along the highway, and a veil of sadness over everything. The film also pinpoints the sorts of divisions cropping up within nuclear families during the pandemic: when Ayar shows up unannounced to her daughter’s birthday party with balloons and cake, she’s just as quickly shown the door because it’s not “safe,” as Renata tells her. Is it not safe due to the virus, or because this woman is cracking, and radioactive?
“Ayar” premiered at SXSW 2021 in the Narrative Spotlight section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.