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By Mark Bell | April 17, 2006

Ensemble dramas have a tendency to delve into the world of the overly pretentious. Having a large cast that has to somehow come together to deliver a greater meaning for the film usually causes cliches and artsy pratfalls. Sometimes the story and characters evolve naturally, other times you need a musical number and a bunch of frogs falling from the sky. In the case of “Little Athens,” it’s more the former, with characters and situations that dodge the cliches while also, somehow, coming together in the end (to an extent, keep reading).

The quick synopsis is a day in the life of a number of smalltown Arizona residents. The larger Cliff’s Notes version involves the following: Corey (DJ Qualls) and Pedro (Jorge Garcia) are lawn/poolboys with a shakey legal history whose day is interrupted by both the arrival of Corey’s sister Emily (Michelle Horn) and getting evicted for being three months past due. Jimmy (John Patrick Amedori) is a low level drug dealer/pizza boy who takes advantage of a friend’s tragedy to move up in the drug trade (and also to pay back an associate who he feels will eventually take out what is owed him via sexual means). Heather (Erica Leerhsen) and Allison (Rachel Miner) are ambulance drivers and best friends who are dealing with the ups and downs of Heather’s relationship with aloof cop Derek (Eric Szmanda). Finishing up the cast of major characters are the trio of Jessica (Jill Ritchie), Carlos (Michael Pena) and Aaron (Kenny Morrison). Aaron and Jessica are dating, but when Aaron discovers a rash on his genitals he accuses Jessica of cheating, and therefore decides to hunt her down and beat her up. Carlos, Jessica’s friend and obvious Duckie to her Andie (if you don’t get the reference, I pity you), helps Jessica stay ahead of, and away from, Aaron as Jessica tries to figure out how to deal with the situation.

I know, at quick read and first glance it seems like a story that is not only hard to follow, but also has little chance of coming together in a meaningful way. The good news is that this is not the case. “Little Athens” spends enough time gradually introducing us to the characters as they are, in their lives, not spending minutes upon minutes on random exposition, and the end result is that, though the characters are numerous and the plotlines varied, you never feel overwhelmed or lost.

Of course, if there was a moment where you stopped caring for or reacting to any of the characters then you could easily drop out of the film, but the quality of the acting in the film is astonishing. Erica Leerhsen proves that the “Blair Witch 2” was as much a blip in her acting skill as the film was in the pop culture conscienceness. Her interplay with Rachel Miner is true in the way that smalltown friendships really are: simple seemingly on the surface, but built on such complex webbing and history that every nuance, statement or situation is to be weighed and studied. DJ Qualls’s Corey is equally as complex, forced to make decisions that don’t necessarily seem smart in a grander view, but in the immediate perspective, trees overpowering the forest, there is only ever one choice to make.

The challenge in criticizing this film is that the majority of criticism I could lavish has less to do with technical prowess, plot, or acting and more to do with my own feeling of how I wanted the plotlines to resolve themselves. Characters behave selfishly, make immoral decisions, are irrationally violent, trip and stumble through their day rather than excel… they are ultimately in one word: human. I don’t have to like everyone, I don’t have to hate everyone, but each character makes me feel something. I don’t want Jessica to make the final decision she makes (or Hell, half the ones that get her to that point), but at the same time, it is a real moment, and I don’t doubt that that person, in that situation, could make that call. A stunning effort all around, “Little Athens” is as much a sociological study as it is a film.

Tom Zuber is to be commended for directing such solid performances, but moreso he and brother Jeff deserve credit for writing a film that actually could take place in any smalltown, peopled with the type of characters we all grew up with or know of from our pasts (if they are not among us living our present). Never is there a moment that feels faked or untrrue, and even the final ending of the film, that leaves many loose ends to be tied up by the audience’s imagination, is more of the way things would be and less of the way we’d expect to see them portrayed in a film.

On top of all the dramatic weight of the acting and storytelling, visually the film is amazing. Starting with the vibrant colors of 35mm that slowly desaturate as the stories start to come together, eventually culminating in a third act that revels in the dark graininess of its 16mm imagery, the film brings your eye in until all your senses are behaving in unison with the action on screen. Kudos to cinematographer Lisa Wiegand for a beautiful image throughout.

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