Films can profoundly impact our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, but to really work their magic, the best subtly weave their message into a compelling story. People prefer watching a robot run amok to a scientist standing in front of a whiteboard, lecturing about the dangers of robots. Indeed, sharing a well-told story is a profoundly human experience.
And that’s the core problem with the new indie thriller 86 Melrose Avenue; writer/director Lili Matta has so much she wants to share that she forgets a good film needs to center on the story. Consequently, the best way to view this film is as a sort of cinematic beta test, an experiment that unsatisfyingly explores some weighty and very contemporary topics.
The titular location 86 Melrose Avenue is a trendy LA art gallery, and it’s opening night for Lebanese photographer Nadia (Anastasia Antonia). The gallery owners are the flamboyantly gay couple Craig (Richard Sabine) and Nick (Andy Evans). Also in the gallery are competing art critics Cathy (Helen Kennedy) and Bill (Gary Sturm), along with rich and suave Israeli art collector Avi (Gregory Zarian). The film jumps around in time, starting in the middle of the story with likable ex-soldier Travis (Dade Elza) skulking through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, trying to avoid the police while nursing an injured hand. Are they after him? He ducks into the gallery to find safe refuge and transforms the banal opening into a tense hostage situation.
We then flashback to Madeline (Kambra Potter), Travis’s wife, who has invited her old school friend Dallas (Jake Red) to join them for dinner. Dallas doesn’t realize, or just doesn’t care that Travis has PTSD after his harrowing military service in Afghanistan. Dinner goes sideways almost immediately, as Dallas rudely questions Travis about his experiences. His patently naive questions about the service and the effectiveness of US troops being in-country are inexplicable, and it’s no surprise when Travis explodes and things get out of hand. The result is Travis running out the door with an injured hand, trying desperately to figure out what to do next. And, of course, ducking into the art gallery to avoid the police.
But is Travis really a criminal? It’s a promising narrative that offers a nuanced and modern perspective on a hostage situation. He’s not really a bad guy, but none of the gallery patrons are good people without fault either. Each person has their own backstory, which we learn through trite and predictable flashbacks. Too many flashbacks. Having some backstory is good, but when it’s more like a checklist to ensure that every character on screen has their moment, it becomes dull. Since each is just a minute or two in duration, the flashbacks are also as shallow as yesterday’s rain puddle. Are we really supposed to care about each and every person on screen simply because they’re involved?
Once the hostage situation is dramatically resolved, the third act of the film surprises with its noir-ish focus on the police trying to tease out what really happened. Each person is interrogated by good cop/bad cop detectives Garcia (Terri Ivens) and Philips (Jim O’Heir). What did the patrons really witness? What did everyone say to each other? Did Travis seem to know Nadia? Were Nadia and Avi a couple? Why was Cathy taking notes as the situation unfolded? The interrogation is a good setup for a secondary story about blind justice and law enforcement missing the facts by seeing suspicious behavior everywhere, but unfortunately, that’s unfulfilled. The two detectives are skeptical and suspicious of everyone, but without a denouement of any sort, the film just drifts on to the closing scenes.
There’s an earnestness to 86 Melrose Avenue that’s appealing, but there’s also too much reliance on endless, tired cinematic tropes. The gallery visitors are an obvious diversity checklist of race, gender, age, and income, leading one to wonder why they would all be at a gallery opening together? Young firebrand Dallas is an inexplicably provocative dinner guest who starts the entire downward spiral, but why? Even the gruff detectives are inexplicably suspicious of everyone and everything related to the hostage situation.
Good films are about stories, but great films are about nuances. The subtly raised eyebrow instead of a full facial expression and shouted curse, the revealing piece of jewelry that hints of a secret life, the photo on the gallery wall that suggests the pain of the artist’s journey and, by extension, that of the gallery owner who has opted to feature it in a prominent position on the front wall.
Ultimately, 86 Melrose Place is the rough draft of an engrossing and compelling thriller that needs more polish, better performances, and one more script rewrite to really be good. It’s probably worth watching as-is, but you’d do best to expect something that’s just a step above a final assignment at film school. Entirely competent, but nothing that stands out in a sea of thrillers.
Dad at the Movies Note: This could be a good film to watch with older teens and can potentially open up a discussion on gun control and PTSD, among other topics. It also ends on a hopeful (if predictable) note. But it’s not for a younger audience in its themes or language.