By James Teitelbaum | February 8, 2009

It can be said that a film is made or broken in the casting process, and this has never been more true than in the case of Lisa Savy James‘s debut feature, “Defying Gravity”. The film’s three leads (Alexandra Mathews as Cassandra, Mario Martinez as Jorge, and Macauley Grey as Shore) are not offensively bad, it is just that they’re playing things a bit broadly and obviously. If they’d been propped up by a decent supporting cast, this film may have worked. But as it stands, this is far from the case.

Almost without exception, all of the supporting players are miserable in their roles. In particular, Tony Franchitto’s portrayal of Cassandra’s thuggish father borders on comedic; unfortunately he’s the bad guy and we’re supposed to be afraid of him. The characters of Jorge’s boss, Shore’s father, a diner owner, and a health inspector also all spring to mind as having been performed especially amateurishly.

“Defying Gravity” is Cassandra’s story. She is a goth-type runaway making her way across the American west to visit the grave of her deceased mother. Her other motive for taking this road trip is to flee dad, who is mean and abusive. The mute and skittish Cassandra ends up squatting in the cemetery where her mother is laid to rest. The caretaker at the boneyard is named Jorge; his is an illegal alien who has been trying to convince his boss to let him restore a 1960 Cadillac hearse.

Meanwhile, a kid named Shore has been kicking around in his Volkswagen minibus, drifting aimlessly while fleecing his father into thinking he is at college. Shore eventually becomes obsessed with Cassandra for unclear reasons. This trio soon encounter Lola (William Belli), a transvestite diner waitress with a heart of gold. When Lola, cracking her gum and cracking wise, gives Cassandra a crumpled wad of bills and tells the runaway to take care of herself out on the road, I realized for the first time that the transvestite diner waitress with a heart of gold has now become either a cliche or an archetype. Maybe both. When Lola joins the other three leads, the foursome go on the run, trying to evade the law, their parents, and maybe the responsibilities of adulthood.

If nothing else, this film feels heartfelt. Lisa Savy James and co-director Michael Keller seem to have cared about this story and its characters. Unfortunately, these characters are cut from rather thin cardboard, and are fed lines and actions from a script jam-packed with cliches. Perhaps one of the many problems that James faced is having taken on too many roles: she is credited as writer, director, producer, and actress!

It is also worth noting that this film marks her debut in all four of these vocations. I am thinking that the failure of this film is her hubris-p erhaps gaining some further experience before attempting to wear so many hats might have resulted in a more successful movie. Then again, the slightly more experienced Keller might have James beat: he was the writer, director, producer, actor and editor on his two previous projects. In “Defying Gravity”, he allows James to use up all of the hyphens, and merely co-directs while playing a small acting role.

“Defying Gravity” is competently shot and edited, and neither of these activities are the work of James or Keller. If James chooses to spread herself less thinly next time, and to perhaps delegate some more of the responsibility to more creative or experienced collaborators, there might be an indie gem or two in her future. Maybe.

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