Arresting Gena: Weakest Film in 1997 Sundance Film Fest

Sundance Film Festival 1997 (Dramatic Competition)–A familiar genre item, Arresting Gena, Hannah Weyer’s frustrating feature directorial debut is a misconceived effort to illuminate the painful coming of age of its protagonist, a sensitive girl unwillingly pushed into a sleazy world of crime.

This Good Machine production, one of its weakest in years, may travel the festival road, but any discussion of theatrical release is mere theory at its current rambling shape.

A personal film, meant to provide sharp commentary on girls “who get lost,” or more precisely, girls who lose their innocence–and gain knowledge of the real world in less than sociable circumstances–Arresting Gena simply lacks a compelling narrative and an engaging central character to leash together the yarn’s potentially interesting threads.

With all the reservations that some critics had about the morally ambiguous Fresh, a movie that also placed a young adolescent at the center of a criminal milieu, at least its story line was clear–and emotionally involving.

Set in the summer before senior year in high school, bleak drama depicts the sudden changes in the life of Gena (Aesha Waks), when her mother falls into a coma and is put in the hospital. Living with her uncle John (Paul Lazar), with whom she has no rapport, Gena spends her days drifting between a circle of aimless friends and a part-time job at a local beauty salon, where she befriends some of its mature employees.

The arrival of Jane (Summer Phoenix), an older girl who has run away from the halfhouse the authorities had placed her in, throws Gena into a foreign world–and forces her to mature much faster than girls her age. Lonely and alienated from her surroundings, Gena is immediately drawn to the willful, free-spirited Jane, who’s hoping to find a refuge with her older brother, Sonny (Sam Rockwell), a petit criminal also hiding from the law.

Lacking any other meaningful contact, the two girls soon find themselves in the midst of Sonny’s dangerous drug machinations with a local gang leader, Sugar (Dan Moran), with whom he is sexually involved. Tale’s most congenial scenes, which unfortunately enjoy only a brief screen time, are those depicting Gena’s romantic and sexual awakening. There are also some achingly touching moments in the interactions between Jane and Sonny, both problematic siblings realizing that they can neither help nor rely on each other.

Unfortunately, scripter Weyer makes a fatal mistake and structures the rest of her narrative around the sudden disappearance of Jane, who’s not only an unsympathetic character, but also one the viewers don’t know much about in order to really care.

It doesn’t help much that piecing together the puzzle follows a rather predictable path and unfolds in a long-winded manner. Missing a third act, pic’s denouement is abrupt and unsatisfying, thematically as well as emotionally.

Gena is appealingly played by Waks, an attractive girl who credibly conveys the harsh life of a lonely, fatherless girl who’s clueless about–and gets no guidance for–her future. But Waks and the other amiable thesps are defeated by a lean and willowy script, that surprisingly enough was developed at the Sundance Institute. Though based on director Weyer’s firsthand experience with similar events, at the end of the film, Gena’s character remains an enigma.

Nice production values, particularly Eliot Rockett’s evocative lensing, only partially succeed in camouflaging the basic conceptual flaws. Special kudos go to production designer Susan Block, whose previous credits include the impressive sets of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Spanking the Monkey, and here demonstrates again what can be accomplished with a small budget.

Credits

Running time: 90 minutes.

A Good Machine and Kardna/Swinsky production. Produced by Margot Bridger and Ted Hope. Executive producers, James Schamus, John Hart, Tom Carouso. Directed, written by Hannah Weyer. Camera (Technicolor, color), Eliot Rockett; editor, Meg Reticker; music, Pat Irwin; music supervision, Alex Steyermark; production design, Susan Block; costume design, Catherine Marie Thomas; assistant director, John M. Tyson; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Reviewed at the Sundance Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 1997.

Cast

Gena………….Aesha Waks
Jane………Summer Phoenix
Sonny……….Sam Rockwell
Caroline…J. Smith-Cameron
Uncle John…….Paul Lazar
Caller………Kirk Acevedo
Soldier..Brendan Sexton III
Sugar………….Dan Moran