Why do people always go back? Is going back—to a person, or a place—always synonymous with going backwards? Echo Park isn’t the first film to deal with that awkward stage some adults experience, when friends are starting families and beginning to settle down, but it stands out as a story that really problematizes notions of maturity in romantic and familial relationships. A beautifully shot and perfectly soundtracked tale from acclaimed photographer-turned-filmmaker Amanda Marsalis, Echo Park succeeds as a romantic story that resists grand, clichéd declarations and depictions of love, and also as its own love letter of sorts, to a distinctive part of Los Angeles.
Audiences will be moved, immediately, by the cinematography of the film, but the narrative doesn’t take off as quickly, or as smoothly. Mamie Gummer plays a newly-single Sophie who first stands out as an interloper (or even, a member of the forces of gentrification) in a neighborhood beloved and inhabited by Alex (Anthony Okungbowa). The film follows the two as they embark on what has to be the safest romantic escapade of all—the kind where the guy is selling you his couch, because he’s moving back to London in two weeks, and there’s no way two strangers could fall for each other that quickly, so why not hook up?
And, for the most part, the film follows this line of reasoning in its plot. Writer Catalina Aguilar Mastretta could teach many a screenwriter a thing or two about resisting the urge to insert drama and intensity in a relationship that isn’t, necessarily, asking for it. And the actors follow her lead, their greatest talents perhaps being the restraint with which they perform this dance. Gummer and Okungbowa have a lovely chemistry reflected in the easygoing nature of their characters. As complications arise—and they surely do, because quite a bit can happen in two weeks—both actors are careful to keep those easily overdramatized emotions at bay. The result is a sweet, and sometimes bittersweet tale about two adults at a crossroads, both finding difficulty discerning the differences between moving on, settling and giving up.
Marsalis and Mastretta have created a strong film that isn’t spectacular on the whole—it does take some time to draw the viewer in, and as the protagonist, Sophie has some weak spots. Gone are the days when a film can center on a woman’s personal life, and deny her a single friend to round out the narrative. Helen Slater does make a few fantastic appearances as her overbearing, well-to-do mother, but in some ways Okungbowa’s character receives the more personal treatment—he has a close friend who plays a key role in the story (Maurice Compte as Mateo), and he delivers such a strong performance that Alex sometimes outshines Sophie. They are both meant to be at this turning point, but Alex’s changes seem to carry more weight.
That said, there are two issues the writer and director handle spectacularly. Echo Park centers on an interracial couple, and it’s absolutely refreshing that the term never comes up. And still, carefully and precisely, it is made apparent that Sophie’s new world and new lover deviate from that which she seeks to leave behind—represented by the presence of her ex-boyfriend and mother. Echo Park does not suggest that race and class issues are nonexistent, but in keeping them as parentheticals to the greater narrative, the story balances its lighthearted presentation with a necessary authenticity. The second great—and surprising—success comes with the film’s denouement. Once again, the urge to provide a definitively romantic conclusion is resisted. The result is a deeply satisfying series of shots that, like the whole of the film, declare intimacy as a transcendent experience—the ultimate adventure in recreation of the self, if only we’d learn to let go.
Director: Amanda Marsalis
Writer: Catalina Aguilar Mastretta
Starring: Mamie Gummer, Anthony Okungbowa, Maurice Compte
Release Date: April 15, 2016
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.