Don’t Let Me Drown
BAMcinemaFEST kicks off its first run this week in Brooklyn, beginning with a screening of a film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, co-presented by the Sundance Posse.
Don’t Let Me Drown is a simple love story from first time director Cruz Angeles. Set over the backdrop of the post 9-11 aftermath in Brooklyn, it observes different culture groups and their reactions and involvement with the tragedy, and with each other. This all orbits around a pair of highschool kids, Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) and Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa). Lalo is of Mexican decent, and Stefanie from an African American family. They meet after Stefanie’s family moves from Manhattan to Brooklyn following the death of her sister in the World Trade Center attack. Both their families are in crisis, Stefanie’s parents trying to regain normalcy after the loss of their eldest daughter, and Lalo’s family struggling with poverty while his father works every day assisting in cleaning up the collapsed buildings. Lalo is intrigued by Stefanie immediately upon meeting her, and slowly she begins to reciprocate his feelings.
The film looks gorgeous, shot on a grainy and sensitive film stock. Light glows warmly, and the focus changes hectically, echoing the chaotic state the city is in during the events of the story. The performances are excellent, especially from Bonilla as Lalo. He is subtle and likable, and all the awkwardness and uncertainty in being a teenage boy is visible in his character on screen. The best scenes of the movie are of Lalo interacting with his friends and family.
Drown suffers from clichés, and a few odd logic gaps. It seems stuck uncomfortably between pushing the romance into a more fantastical world and keeping it chained to the reality of the city. But the realistic and sentimental images of Brooklyn life for its characters keep the film from focusing too strongly on only the love story. It is when the romance takes over the film in the latter half that it sinks into a somewhat bland mediocrity. Still, everyone involved seems to pull their weight, and for a first time director, Angeles has demonstrated an artful and wise voice.
Even many years later, it is a bold move to premiere a new film festival with a film graphically depicting 9-11, especially in New York City. In this case, it proves to be an intelligent and appropriate one. Drown’s biggest strength is in its observation of the tragedy, showing how life moves on despite the most awful of occurrences. Taking place mere weeks after the event, the audience is shown people of all races living their lives. The changes are there, but Lalo and his friends still ride their bikes and tease each other. There is much comedy in the story, and it is surprisingly funny. And it does not shy away from showing those who have been broken, and are struggling to reassume their lives. But a spark of hope exists in the connection between Lalo and Stefanie, offering the suggestion that something beautiful can still grow out of the worst tragedies. It is heartwarming.