In one of the most memorable scenes from Laguna Ave, Russell (Russell Steinberg) and Gary (James Markham Hall Jr.) stand back-to-back in a park as the camera swirls around them. The stylish Gary, wearing a three-piece suit, has just revealed to jobless slob Russell that everyone in the park is conspiring against them. The scene is claustrophobic in the wide-open space and somehow reminds me of those imaginary quests you make up in your head as a kid where you and your friends play as the hero and everyone else is a potential villain. Laguna Ave emits that same playful energy and even has the cybernetic super hand to prove it.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it, last year was difficult. Having people cooped up in their homes trying to do work and get along with their significant others may no longer hold the same appeal as when they went in. Though Laguna Ave is not about COVID lockdown and does not have really anything to do with the disease, it feels like the level of isolation and paranoia that the film introduces you to puts you back into a similar headspace. The film begins with Russell being fired, his girlfriend Rita (Stephanie Brait) leaving for a couple of weeks, and his neighbors beginning to disappear. With his boredom and loneliness rising, he befriends the new downstairs neighbor, Gary, who appeals to Russell’s curiosity because he is anything but what he appears to be.
Gary wears a suit and tie on the outside and speaks like he just came out of Rex Harrison’s charm school, but when he saves Russell from an intruder in his bedroom by punching him to a bloody pulp, Gary begins bringing Russell down a rabbit hole filled with science fiction chaos. See, Gary believes an evil corporation led by Russell’s girlfriend is hellbent on stopping Gary from achieving singularity (transcendental consciousness through machinery). The film has a pretty good handle on allowing Russell to buy into Gary’s erratic behavior by setting up his own trust and self-esteem issues. Gary easily persuades Russell into his world of cybernetic caginess and confesses he’s already become more machine than they can handle, showing Russell the motherboards connected to him. Dosing Russell, Gary embeds him with the same technology, including that new mechanical hand previously mentioned.
Laguna Ave is strange. On the one hand, I generally applaud first-time writer Paul Papadeas and director David Buchanan’s attempt at making this feature film. Honestly, Laguna Ave reminded me a lot of the inventiveness of Manborg. Unlike Manborg, which presents itself as an ’80s straight to video VHS tape, Laguna Ave made some interesting choices that I couldn’t figure out. Was the feature shot in black and white because they liked the aesthetic or because they want you to feel surveilled? And should that even apply in 2021, where most cameras are now in color (unlike in the Clerks days)? Or could it have been for a monster movie angle? Cyborgs could be the modern-day Frankenstein monsters.
Secondly, for the first half of the film, I was generally unsure of what the nature of the film was. I mean, there is a glaring defecation joke almost immediately, and though that should have been some sort of sign, I didn’t find myself laughing right away. It wasn’t until Gary revealed himself to be a cyborg that I felt like Laguna Ave popped. The movie is never uninteresting, but it feels as though it meanders in those early scenes, a little like an aimless early John Waters movie. Even the film’s opening on Russell’s office heist, which sets the rest of the events in motion, feels convoluted, given that we go through that chain of events organically later.
The film seems to serve a baked-in message aimed at big tech and other capitalist companies. The industry underpays and overworks its staff to the point that many seek treatment for anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, technology is always getting bigger and better, and we’re integrating it into our lives more and more. One day technology may overtake workforces to the point where human workers won’t be needed in the same capacity. Gary defines this in the film as accelerationism, which I did not know until now was a real theory that looks to speed up capitalist and technological efforts to force societal changes. Some believe this could lead to a change for the betterment of society—think Star Trek—where they no longer work for money but only seek to better themselves. In contrast, others believe it will lead to the opposite—think Elysium—with the rich living comfortably in a space station with free healthcare. The problem is that you have people hoping for both and, not to sound dismal, but we all know which way that would likely swing.
Personally, I found Laguna Ave a little hard to navigate. However, I think when I saw John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs or Pink Flamingos for the first time, I probably felt the same way. Those are two movies I find absolutely mesmerizing now. Like Waters’ films, Laguna Ave is super low budget and uses mostly unknown actors, but its sheer imagination is pretty great. Think if Waters remade Robocop with the loose change in his pocket, and you’re there. I definitely think this will be a film that will divide a lot of audiences. Some will appreciate it right away and be inspired by the kitschy playfulness, while others will need a bit more to go on than the simple ridiculousness of it all.
Laguna Ave makes its World Premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest on August 27.
For more of our FrightFest coverage, please check out: