In March 1998, San Francisco-based filmmaker Erica Jordan made headlines when her independently-produced drama “Walls of Sand” became the first contemporary feature film to be presented over the Internet. While much of the coverage for this event focused on the breakthrough cyber-distribution, savvy writers were quick to praise the mature and graceful production Ms. Jordan helmed, which had already achieved notice as an award-winning selection on the festival circuit.
While anyone who saw “Walls of Sand” could immediately recognize Ms. Jordan’s talent as a filmmaker, her new feature “In the Wake” serves to confirm not only her skill and mastery of independent film production, but also herald her arrival as one of the major artists of the indie scene. “In the Wake” is both serene and devastating — it aims for the highest emotional denominator and delivers in a payoff that leaves the mind and soul reeling. Blessed with a screenplay that brilliantly essays the ebb and flow of life and moored by a central performance by an extraordinary newcomer to film, “In the Wake” is nothing short of a triumph.
“In the Wake” focuses on Tommy (played by the hauntingly beautiful Julia D’Orazio), a San Francisco sculptor whose life has become frozen in a state of inertia. Numb from the betrayal of her ex-boyfriend (a ballet dancer who romantically twirled with other partners) and alienated from friends whose lives have become centered around their husbands and fiances, Tommy’s passion for art and life atrophies. Her daytime hours are wasted as a legal secretary, where the indifference to her work borders on incompetence and where her employer’s tolerance of her sloppiness could easily be classified as low-level masochism. Even a notice of eviction from her cramped apartment fails to snap her from this freeze, and Tommy is so far lost that she initially does not realize she is being romantically pursued by Raymond, a rather cute record shop clerk who also hosts a public radio show (Timothy Rodriquez, in a very charming performance).
Salvation comes to Tommy in the most unlikely fashion. While browsing through the bric-a-brac of an estate sale, she acquires a diary from a once-famous dancer who disrupted both her guarded emotions and the pretensions of 1905 San Francisco society through an affair with a Mexican fisherman. Inspired by this free-spirit of a distant era, Tommy slowly finds herself returning to life and getting her priorities in order one step at a time. In rediscovering her art, she rediscovers herself and the renewed focus on her life offers a new source of energy to bury the past, live for the present and thirst for the future.
“In the Wake” is the most appropriate title for this film, since Tommy’s realignment of her values and needs comes in the wake of a variety of crises…and because her life literally becomes a wake, where friends, acquaintances and family members spend time with someone who is virtually bereft of life. The challenge of bringing emotional inertia to the screen is mighty and it is to the credit of the gifted Julia D’Orazio that “In the Wake” pays off. As the center of every scene in the film, she carries the weight of the production with an extraordinary performance. It is impossible not to become hypnotized by Ms. D’Orazio’s hazel eyes as they mirror Tommy’s shifting emotions: the jealousy in learning of a friend’s engagement, the emptiness of wandering the shoreline lost in her own fog, the gradual defrosting of her heart when the puppy-romantic Raymond takes her birdwatching, and the apotheosis of self-independence standing alone in the middle of the night on the Golden Gate Bridge after symbolically pushing away an obstacle to her progress and well-being. Ms. D’Orazio’s performance captures the anguish and the resolution of a woman who only belatedly learned to define herself and her place in the world, and she is a talent deserving of A-list superstardom.
Special mention needs to be made of Francis Assadi’s DV cinematography. Of course San Francisco is the most photogenic metropolis in America, but the camerawork here takes the sublime visuals of the celebrated city to a higher level which will inspire pangs of ruefulness in anyone who loves San Francisco and has been away from it for too long.
Ultimately, the success of “In the Wake” is a testament to the cinematic skills of Erica Jordan. In creating a screenplay which presents adult characters facing genuine situations, suffering from true pain that cannot be shared and learning to find their way without melodrama or convenient plot twists, “In the Wake” offers a story of true life which moves mind, heart and spirit. As a director, Jordan’s subtle eye presents scene compositions that are literally suitable for framing, and as a producer she helms a film whose professional look and polish equal to any Hollywood offering. This is a gorgeous film at every possible level.
“In the Wake” is only beginning to make the rounds in the film circuit. This is the ultimate rarity in contemporary American independent filmmaking: a work of art and a work of intelligence.