Headhunter's Sister, The

Set in Manhattan's colorfully vibrant, multi-cultural Lower East Side, The Headhunter's Sister offers an fascinating portrait of a truly odd urban community, composed of members who're refugees in both geographical and socio-cultural ways. Boasting an intricate structure, sharp characterization and dense texture, Scott Saunders' second directorial effort, a narrative highlight of the L.A. Indie Festival this year, deserves a serious consideration by distributors for a limited theatrical release.

At heart, The Headhunter's Sister is a coming-of-age story, except that the protagonist, Ray (Bob McGrath) is not the customary teenager in such fare, but a middle-aged man, forced by life's most unanticipated circumstances to mature and come to terms with his feelings and responsibilities as husband, brother, friend–and human being. The impetus for Ray's identity crisis is provided by Linda (Elizabeth Schofield), his younger sister, a beautiful suburban wife and mother from Santa Monica, who's herself undergoing a marriage breakup.

Displaying a slice of contempo New York as a commune of refugees, story revolves around characters who have all come from somewhere else with vague hopes but real expectations to find a better, more fulfilling life. They include such disparate individuals as illegal immigrants, phone sex operators, headhunters, suburban housewives, aging drug-addicts, and other urban outcasts.

When Linda's first Big Apple weekend begins, she feels like an alien who's landed on another planet, barely able to communicate to her brother, a grubby but bright tenement dweller on the crumbling Lower East Side. Still living a bohemian life which fits someone in his 20s, the fortysomething Ray is a successful headhunter–or as somebody in the film says, a legal recruiter–who insists on getting paid in cash so that he doesn't have to file taxes. With no bank account, credit cards–or health insurance–Ray is an anomaly not only in his business milieu, but also in New York.

Having recently married Teresa (Isabel Robayo), a sensuous immigrant from Colombia, for the green card, he can't have any verbal interaction with her. To make a living, Teresa performs Spanish-language sex phone in a sweat shop, which brings her closer to a whole network of Spanish-speaking friends. Lonely and culturally isolated, Teresa renews her contact with Luis (Roberto De La Pena), her former lover and now heavy-duty drug-addict, who understands her language and the world she's left behind but still misses. What complicates these already messed-up lives is Ray's falling in love with his wife, and the latter's ensuing conflict between lovers who could not have been more different.

Saunders, who acquits himself more impressively as a scripter than director, constructs a gripping summer tale, punctuated by Linda's three visits to New York, each precipitating a significant transformation in the characters' personalities and their complex relationships with each other. Unusually rich in text and subtext, Headhunter's Sister offers the pleasures of a thick narrative with layers of meanings, a rare sight even among indie films, whose power rests on accumulation of details.

Technically, this low-budgeter, reportedly shot in only 14 days, is modest, but it doesn't matter for the story is always absorbing and the acting uniformly high, particularly by McGrath, who looks and even sounds like Dustin Hoffman. Pic is occasionally marred by helmer's penchant for excessive intercutting and parallel montages, which are meant to convey the simultaneous actions of the characters, but are ultimately both detracting and distracting. Saunders, who also cut his movie, could benefit from the service of a more detached editor, who would have given the yarn a more varied and nuanced tempo.