Star Maps

The promising Latino helmer, Miguel Arteta, burst onto the indie scene with Star Maps (1997), a melodrama about the destruction a villainous patriarch brings upon his family. A macho bully, Pepe (Efrain Figuera) has driven his wife insane–she spends her time in bed staring vacantly at her TV screen and conversing with the late Mexican comedian Cantinflas. Pepe's eldest son is a fat, lewd child who enjoys dressing up as a masked wrestler. In contrast, his daughter is ultra-sensitive and insecure, always on the verge of hysteria.

Carlos (Douglas Spain), the youngest son and hero of the story, is forced by his father to become a hustler. Pepe justifies his pimping by saying “Life is hard, nobody gives you anything for nothing.” Innocent and good-natured Carlos clings against all odds to the belief that his hustling is temporary, until his acting career takes off.

Representing an uneasy balance of Latino and arthouse fare, Star Maps' story is told with crude, lurid simplicity only occasionally touched by lyricism. Arteta creates a dense texture of oppression, encouraging the audiences' sympathy for Carlos. But the film is unrefined, lacking dramatic or emotional subtlety. With malevolence that knows no limits, Pepe's behavior gets worse and worse.

Terrence Rafferty has observed that the film could have worked as a parody of overbearing patriarchy, but Arteta chose instead a conventional approach to the story of a father selling his son, with no symbolic meaning. It's the kind of squalid family melodrama that's more at home on sleazy talk shows like Jerry Springer than on the screen.

Even so, using the obvious whore metaphor, Hollywood serves as a backdrop for some astute observations on race, class, sexuality, and family. Almost every character in the film is engaged in a transaction, cutting deals of one type or another, including a rich white matron who promises to advance Pedro's career in exchange for sexual favors.