The low-budget phenom of the month is a 28-year-old Los Angeleno named Miguel Arteta, whose first feature, Star Maps, comes decorated with the usual indie-hero stories about borrowed cars, unauthorized location shots and crew lunches catered by Mom. It's also encrusted with enough tortured metaphor to sink a sophomore lit class. And enough soft-core porn to make its young creator seem daring.
The tragicomic plot concerns a preposterously disordered Chicano family dominated by a cruel, philandering father, Pepe (Efrain Figueroa), who has a string of teenage boys (including his own son Carlos) working the streets selling tourist maps of the homes of the stars. But that's only a front: The kids are really male prostitutes.
Things are no better at home. Pepe's older son, Juancito (Vincent Chandler), is a quivering mass of flesh who sits dumbfounded in front of the TV all day long, stuffing vanilla wafers into his mouth. Pepe's wife, Teresa (Martha Velez), has just suffered a nervous breakdown and now has hallucinations in which the ghost of the Mexican movie actor Cantinflas speaks to her, sometimes disguised as the man in the moon. Daughter Maria (Lysa Flores) tends to Mom and yearns to marry a square pharmacist named Fred, who will take her away from all this.
Not exactly the picture of domestic bliss.
Young Carlos (newcomer Douglas Spain) is supposed to be the pivotal presence here. A starstruck kid who's read too many fan magazines, he's forever imagining himself as a major movie star--even though his acting experience consists of exactly one school play back in Mexico, from which he's just arrived on the bus. Unfortunately, Carlos is far too busy getting diddled by dirty old men and servicing desperate Hollywood hags to go after his first Oscar. It's only when Jennifer (Kandeyce Jorden), an insatiable babe who stars in a soap opera called Carmel County, pulls up to Carlos's corner in her Jaguar convertible that he gets a shot at fame. She soon grows so fond of Carlos's youthful acrobatics that she offers him a part on her show.
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This untidy collection of pimps and hustlers, nymphomaniacs and fantasizers, delusionals and dictators is, of course, writer/director Arteta's way of telling us that showbiz is full of exploiters and exploitees. Better watch out or you'll lose your soul. This is not exactly a news flash. Neither are the filmmaker's familiar lessons about life and art, his thinly veiled sermons on ethnic stereotyping in Hollywood or his distinctions between the pure of heart and the evil of intent. A recent graduate of Wesleyan University and the American Film Institute, Arteta is the kind of neophyte who insists on stacking his meanings so high that they inevitably collapse in a heap.
The acting in Star Maps is more sincere than professional, just like the film. Nonetheless, it got a nice reception (and a distributor) at Sundance, where movie-industry folk gather each winter to separate the commercially viable from the merely promising, if not the trick from the whore.
Written and directed by Miguel Arteta. With Douglas Spain, Efrain Figueroa, Kandeyce Jorden and Martha Velez.