It may not be Cannes, from which many on the film fest circuit are still recovering, but Film Independent’s LA Film Festival is not trying to compete, just carve its own niche on the uber competitive circuit. And for fest director Stephanie Allain, that niche clearly is diversity. Last night at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, she met her goal with this year’s LAFF opening-night film Lowriders, a familial drama that explores the rampant car culture in L.A.’s Latino community. The cast includes Oscar-nominated Demian Bichir as the family patriarch, Eva Longoria as his girlfriend and Gabriel Chavarria and Theo Rossi as his sons along with Supergirl star Melissa Benoist. The film also makes good use of some very visual Los Angeles locations. What could be better as an LAFF opener? “It’s as L.A. and culturally specific as you can get,” Allain told me while praising the work of its director Ricardo de Montreuil. “It is authentic and made by people of color, and the actors are all real. I brought my mother and she said, ‘Oh, that made me think about that culture differentl.'”
Lowriders initially was not born out of the streets of L.A. but hatched in the mind of Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer, who came up with the idea of exploring this particular part of the city’s culture many years ago when he was making 8 Mile. Allain brought Grazer and his fellow producer Jason Blum on to the Dome stage to introduce the film. Grazer explained how he got involved: “This particular movie was a very personal thing for me in that I went to school in the San Fernando Valley and the car culture in the Hispanic community was a very big part of it , and I was acutely aware of it. I loved these car clubs and was very sensitized to them. I was almost in awe of the brotherhood and sisterhood of these organizations.” He recalled one in particular that made an impact on him called the Coasters. Ultimately Grazer was able to make a movie happen with the help of some legendary figures in the lowrider community. “We decided we would try to give birth to a movie — we didn’t know it would morph into this form — but a movie that would celebrate the culture and the Hispanic value system.”
At the film’s afterparty at Beso, Longoria’s restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, Blum told me he got involved through his deal with Universal, under which he makes low-budget films like The Purge series, but also he says takes properties the studio has that are sitting around not getting made due to budgets that are too big. Grazer’s project was one of those, priced originally at $25 million-$30 million. U put him together with Grazer with the idea that he could get it made for $5 million. He said the same thing happened with the Jennifer Lopez starring vehicle The Boy Next Door, which he brought in ultimately for around $4 million and became a profitable movie for the studio in January.
Lowriders, which sports both Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment label and Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, was presented at LAFF without an announced distribution deal in place, but Blum says it will be released from somewhere within the Universal family, though which label is yet to be determined. This major-studio pedigree behind the film is ironic in that it was chosen as the very indie-centric LAFF’s opening film. It is another example of how to make a very independent-minded movie somehow in the bulging studio system. Allain compared the powerful family drama to another studio film of several years ago, John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood. It seems a no-brainer for distribution as the Latino market is a very strong one for the industry now and, perhaps like U’s breakout 2015 hit Straight Outta Compton, this one also has some potential crossover appeal outside of the community it is about. With emphasis on the human factor, it is a powerful and moving film that should resonate with audiences of all colors. Chavarria and Rossi are excellent, but it’s Bichir, at first unrecognizable from his Oscar-nominated Best Actor turn in A Better Life, who once again delivers searing, award-worthy work.
LAFF — which runs through June 9 at a new location at ArcLight in Culver City, when another Latino-oriented film, Desierto with Gael Garcia Bernal, will close the fest — has 42 world premieres this year, of which three-quarters are directed by women or people of color. And though its early-summer date keeps LAFF firmly out of the Oscar-season business that November’s Hollywood-based AFI Fest traffics in so successfully, the fest will dip its toes into campaign season by presenting clips and a conversation with Nate Parker, writer-director-star of Sundance sensation The Birth of a Nation, which Fox Searchlight releases in October. The movie itself will be held for the fall fest circuit, but at least LAFF has found a way to be a small part of the conversation — literally.
Does LAFF have something game-changing coming from its lineup this year? Probably not, but it will be fun to see what — and who — emerge from this very diverse showcase. And isn’t that the point, anyway?