Normally one would expect a movie set in San Francisco’s notorious tenderloin district to be chock full of lurid sex and drugs. The latter is certainly true in this case, but the lurid sex has been replaced by inspiration and hope. Huh? A life-affirming tale straight out of the Tenderloin? Hey, wha’happened?
For the uninitiated, “Harrison Montgomery” wastes little time in acquainting the audience with the charms of San Francisco’s finest red light district, but amongst the filth and decay exists a wide-eyed artist, Ricardo Papa, who with pad and pencil illustrates what he sees around him, digging deep and drawing forth what hard-to-find beauty exists in his poverty-stricken surroundings. It is then a shame to learn that Ricardo has been driven to extremes by poverty himself and that he spends most of his time as a drug dealer in order to make a living – a dangerous living at that as we catch up with Ricardo just as he’s being shaken down by his supplier for a load of cash he doesn’t have yet. A magnetic performance by Octavio Gomez draws the audience to this reluctant drug dealer, who at the same time is quite good at his job and you find yourself charmed by his street smarts even though he probably wouldn’t be someone you would bring home to meet grandma.
Living across from Ricardo is a single mother, Margo Fleming, with her daughter Lattie. Played by the always amazing Melora Walters, who many of you will know from “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” Margo also has lofty dreams of becoming a professional artist one day, but, even though she hates to admit it, the burden of having a child has made these dreams difficult to achieve. What’s more, she currently lives with an emotionally abusive boyfriend merely for the sake of financial security. This is not the ideal setting for dreams to flourish and Margo drifts from day to day in a quiet misery.
Desperate to escape her depressing living situation, thirteen-year-old Lattie frequently forces her way into Ricardo’s apartment for a breath of fresh air…and pot smoke…to the unease of Ricardo who is reluctant to be a playmate with a teenage kid. But reluctant as he is, a friendship begins to form. Played by young newcomer Krista Ott, Lattie kicks Juno’s a*s in the tough but charming teen sweepstakes. In short, you really, really like this kid and Ott’s performance is one of the film’s many endearing qualities.
And if you haven’t been completely wowed by the cast yet, along comes Martin Landau to fill the title role of Harrison Montgomery, a crazy old shut-in devoted to decoding the hidden messages in the catch phrases of gameshows. He also may have won the lottery back in the day – a curious little nugget of info Ricardo takes interest in when he meets Harrison through a twist of fate. And when he and a buddy of his gets ripped off in a drug deal gone bad, Ricardo finds himself even further in debt and his interest in Harrison’s supposed lottery loot becomes obsessive, especially once he learns that all of this cash may be stowed somewhere in the old man’s apartment. Struggling to escape a life of drugs and crime, Ricardo finds that he may have to sink even lower before pulling himelf from the filth.
Ripe with outstanding performances and bolstered by strong characters, each with their own personal story of struggle, this tale from the Tenderloin rises above the oppressive nature of its violent streets and is able to plant the seed of inspiration in us all. A wonderfully crafted film.