Cinema is rotten these days with worship of overblown production values, special effects and plot-driven narratives to the point that basic humanity takes a back seat. Even popcorn movies have dropped a notch in that regard. The focus is on more, more, more, always more. More sets, more CGI, more convoluted storylines, more money, and the end result is less. Less artistic expression, less emotion, less courage. It’s an empty feeling in the context of the overwhelming escapism the movie business has been offering this past decade or two. It is as if the journey of exploration into the human soul has ended.
And then EKAJ arrives.
Welcome to a wonderful film brave enough to look at love, trauma, human ugliness, human beauty, bloom and demise. Welcome to a film bold enough to rely not on production value, but a challenging aesthetic which belongs to itself alone. Here you will encounter not another by-the-numbers narrative. Expect instead an abstract impressionistic mosaic that builds a story through unruly brush strokes to be experienced more like a de Kooning than a Rembrandt. It’s not an easy cinematic ride. The many unexpected cuts, harsh focus shifts, dizzying camera work, and endlessly transitioning scenarios can either be entirely captivating or uncomfortably disorienting – or even better, both at once. We enter and exit conversations in mid-stream. Narration interrupts with little primary context. Music intrudes on a scene bombastically and just as suddenly goes silent without notice. All of this is a brilliant and deeply communicative audio/visual approach which compliments and enhances the narrative so perfectly, the audience can be forgiven if they feel as if they are “still in the movie” for an hour or two after watching it.
The film follows the harrowing story of EKAJ, a gay teenage runaway who turns to prostitution to survive and support his drug habit. From the first frame, we know he fundamentally struggles with his gender identity. Even the audience may take a moment to see he’s not a girl. A great line of dialogue comes later that captures it perfectly: “I’ve always hated men – I even hate myself because I have the male mentality.” What follows is a series of snapshots of life on the street. Of course, there is desperation, violence and danger. More miraculously, there is love and true friendship. At one point, EKAJ meets Mecca, a guy with face tattoos who you are sure will become just another tormentor. Instead, we find two lost souls discovering each other, comforting each other, loving each other, and with no sexual bond between them. Very quickly, Mecca morphs from repulsive and threatening to one of the single most endearing characters of all time. The chemistry between Mecca and EKAJ is so easygoing and natural, the film often feels like cinema verite. Both Jake Mestre (EKAJ) and Badd Idea (Mecca) would be co-winners of Best Actor Oscars in a just universe. The performances by these newcomer lead actors carry all the power, brutality and relief of a thunderstorm’s full cycle. Often, their conversations are almost about nothing, causal back-and-forth between buddies hanging out. In the more difficult moments, their exchanges are profoundly painful and beautiful.
Behind all this exquisite DIY craft is a film which delivers to the audience an immersive experiential opportunity to live among a depraved lifestyle fueled by violence that starts in the home and flows into the streets. Snippets of EKAJ’s damaging past with a young, brutal, homophobic father add foundation to understanding the plight of an abused gay man forced to live in a world of thuggish hyper-masculinity. How homelessness and desperation lead to prostitution is summed up in one genius sentence: “Virginity ain’t gonna buy you a cheeseburger.” Allowing oneself to be basted in the film’s world is transformative. Never again will you look at “bums” and “degenerates” in a one-dimensional way. Because now, you’ve lived with them. Forget the soft edges and Hollywood dazzle of films like Midnight Cowboy or My Own Private Idaho. Such works don’t dare to delve into the filmic poetry and crushingly honest depictions which EKAJ achieves. It’s a stunning inaugural work from fist-time director Cati Gonzalez, who did everything from camera work to editing and of course, writing this unforgettable film. Emerging from this 80-minute trip feels like stepping out of a kaleidoscope version of a transient reality. One can only hope that all players involved will find more opportunities to work their magic.