Natural History of Parking Lots (1990): Everett Lewis Sundance Feature Debut

Sundance Film Fest 1990 (In Dramatic Competition)–In The Natural History of Parking Lots, writer-editor-director Everett Lewis makes a striking feature debut that in narrative approach and visual style owes a lot to the early works of French New Wave—except it’s not that good.


The film premiered at the 1990 Sundance film Festival (in competition), and then released theatrically in limited market by Strand, the courageous indie distributor.


A sort of stylish, black-and-white update of “Rebel Without a Cause,” the tale centers on Chris Taylor (Charlie Bean), a 17 year old, who after being arrested for a car theft, is placed in the care of his older brother Lance (b. Wyatt), when his wealthy, irresponsible parents don’t have time or interest to raise him.


Midway, Chris Taylor reads from his older brother’s English paper on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” “If we were to convey the heart of darkness today, we’d set it in the parking lot of a high school in the San Fernando Valley.”  And this paragraph captures the goal and tone of the film, which is set in various parts of the City of Angeles (where else?), the rich, lush and enclosed as well as the seedy and open.


Chris lives in the family’s gated Hancock Park house alone, except for a maid (Just like “Rebel Without a Cause,” except that she is not seen here).  The furniture, in dust covers, is not seen either. A product of a broken, dysfunctional family, Chris’s mother has remarried and moved to Palm Beach, Florida, whereas his father preoccupied with his swinging but empty lifestyle in Marina del Rey.


In the first reel, Chris cruises the freeways in a Chrysler, just killing time, living an aimless lifestyle.  While driving one of his stolen car to school, he is arrested and put under probation, and then under the supervision and tutelage of his older brother, Lance.


Lance’s cash comes from dealing guns to Glendale’s neo-Nazis, but the proposition of taking care of his bother somehow appeals to him.  Rest of the saga is a two-handler, a tale of two brothers as they spend time getting to know each other, hiking, swimming in the nude in Lance’s secret lake, practicing shooting in the wilderness, getting haircuts, arguing, separating, reuniting, and so on. Senseless violence and family melodrama kick in in the last ten minutes, but the very end is rather upbeat, signaling Chris’ gradual maturation.

Mood and tone one are far more important than text or plot, which are slender, underdeveloped, often feeling arbitrary in the order which the sequences unfold and are presented.  However, visually, the stylized black-and-white picture is impressive, courtesy of cinematographer Hisham Abed, compensating for the performances of Wyatt and Bean, which are decent but no more; Bean, in fact, has never acted before, but he’s blessed with a likable and vulnerable screen persona.


Though striking, “Natural History” still feels like a first work in its rambling narrative and pretentious camera movement, framing, and editing, which call too much attention to themselves. Overall, Lewis’ debut gives the illusion that his movie is more significant than it actually is. The real test of Lewis’ caliber of talent will be with his next feature.




Strand Releasing

Running Time:  92 Minutes

Film Stock:  16m

Released Date:  October 1990