In Echo Park, directed by Amanda Marsalis and starring Anthony Okungbowa and Mamie Gummer, and released by Ava Duvernay's Array film distribution company, two normal Los Angelenos unencumbered by stereotypes and poverty are trying to live, laugh and love as best they can.
Given an 86 percent by the finicky critic site Rotten Tomatoes, Echo Park is a complicated love story that is beautifully and artistically shot in a manner that makes this part of LA just as much a player in the film as the actors themselves.
Last week I had the chance to have a conversation with actor Anthony Okungbowa, known for his previous roles in Mother of George and Restless City, about the nuanced, complicated and emotionally-thoughtful subject matter in the film.
The Shadow League: Your character is dualistic in that he is a bit of a dreamer but is a pragmatist in his own dealings.
Anthony Okungbowa: I like to believe that dreams are what wake us up every morning. Whether it is dreams for a loved one, dreams for a better life, dreams for a challenge, whatever it is. But when the rubber hits the road dreams give way to reality. The fact that he moved to another country and set up a new life, it was like a dream.
He had dreams of living a better life but then reality kicked in. Reality can be a good thing and it can be a negative thing. They say a boxer's plan is perfect until he gets hit in the nose for the first time. While dreams can be badly broken by reality, I also think that there can be good dreams.
The Shadow League: These characters are adult, but from an emotional and intellectual perspective rather than salaciously. Was that by design or did they evolve that way?
AO: We definitely set out to do that. The first thing we wanted was to tell stories of people who were like us. People like us sometimes get forgotten. Like, everybody's making like generation X movies or whatever, and these are the struggles that me and my friends go through when we move across the continent to a different country or struggling with relationships.
Like, how many times have you heard someone say they're giving up on dating altogether and before you know it they're in a situation? Echo Park is pretty much a reflection of every major city where I have friends living. From Oakland to Brooklyn, there are levels of gentrification. People are moving in and you're like, "Okay, do I meet this newbies or carry on with my life?'
The Shadow League: Much of the pre-gentrification population of Echo Park was Latino. Your character's best friend in the film is a Mexican-American, played by Cuban American actor/director Maurice Compte. This was significant as far as my suspension of disbelief was concerned. What did you think initially?
AO: I saw that and I thought, "When was the last time you saw a Latino guy and a Black guy as friends on screen?" Just normal people, not like in a gang or something. Just normal people. Rather than putting people in extraordinary circumstances I'm going to just put these people there. That's what we ended up doing.
The Shadow League: Your character and Sophie, played by Mamie Gummer, seem like perfect candidates to live happily ever after. However, she is unsure of what she wants in a relationship, or if she even wants one at all. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Alex's time in the United States and I'm like 'Make a decision.'
AO: The truth of the matter is it is never black and white, and I don't mean that because of the characters either. You think,"I'm going to do this, meet this person, settle down, have 2.3 kids and call it a day."
But it never happens like that, at least in my life it doesn't. I think that the fact that she was going through these complex battles within herself and dealing with these issues, I think that's most people's lives.
Now Hollywood will tell you that it doesn't happen like that. But one-plus-one doesn't always add up to two. Sometimes it adds up to three or four and I think that her struggles are indicative of that.
On paper she has the perfect life. All she needs to do is chose, and it doesn't always work out like that.
The Shadow League: What do you hope people will get from this film?
AO: One of the things we're excited about with Echo Park is we hope it's part of the new language of filmmakers who are minority and female, to get the word out there that we can tell stories with characters that are not always stereotypical and sugar-coated to be palatable to everybody. Those are important messages that we feel the film addresses directly and subconsciously.
Echo Park opened in theaters nationwide on April 15. Check local listings for details.