Written, directed and edited by Sherman Lau, “Zooey” is a brilliantly shot and insightfully acted love story of the too-beautiful-for-this-world variety. The world in this case is New York in general, Brooklyn in particular. The lovers are Zooey and her new husband Angel. Zooey and Angel are the sort of young people we all drive past in our cars on out way anywhere, and often think of as common street trash: bluntly put, Zooey is a junkie w***e and Angel is a drug dealer, or at least a runner for a dealer.
Lau, a longtime producer-editor for VH1 (and a veteran of the sorely lamented “Behind the Music”), based Angel and Zooey on a real-life couple he knew; their sad humanity, and Lau’s sympathy for their plight, sears through every frame of the film. In the title role, Sarah Louise Lilley is a truly special find, beautiful, soulful, angry and funny, looking not a day over 25 but at the same time incredibly tired and worn-out by The Life. Lau interweaves convincingly played, clinically shot “interview” segments throughout, in which Zooey lays out her dreams for the future: moving to a place called Churchill, Manitoba, with Angel. She loves to read about the place, knows everything there is to know about it, and also fills in her own visions of a cute little cottage, white picket fence, kids, dog etc.
Angel shares her dream, works hard to try and help it come true, but at first he comes off as a bit of drip, entirely too accepting of Zooey’s career choice (though his gig isn’t one to write home about either). But his patience slowly reveals itself not just as love but as faith, a deep-seated belief he has in Zooey that she doesn’t really have in herself. But when Zooey’s best friend Cheryl (Rachael Roberts) ends up on the wrong side of pimp daddy Louie (Larry James), matters get complicated. The couple takes in Cheryl’s wrestling-crazed kid Jake (sweetly played by Jordan Burt, who has gone on to star in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village”), but they are hardly equipped to deal with the chilly intricacies of New York’s social services bureaucracy.
Then Angel decides to avenge Cheryl, though an avenging angel is hardly what he’s cracked up to be…and the road to some kind of hell looms. A lovely shot of the Empire State Building framed by the Brooklyn Bridge says everything about where Zooey and Angel find themselves versus where they’d like to be – short of actually making it up to Canada.
Shot in just two weeks on a budget of $20,000, “Zooey” is a grim and gritty urban tale that somehow manages to radiate a touching hope in humanity even under the most dire, even tragic circumstances. Unlike the beautiful lost souls of the film, director Lau and star Lilley look to have especially bright futures.