INDIE RIGHTS MOVIES (2015)

 

Director: Cati Gonzalez

 

Starring: Jake Mestre, Scooter LaForge, Badd Idea

Ekaj. What a cool name.

 

Written and directed by debutant Cati Gonzalez, Ekaj is a hard-hitting story of a vulnerable man trapped in the urban excesses of New York, having escaped his life and family in Puerto Rico, desperate for love and acceptance in an environment that is anything but loving and accepting. Any movie that deals with AIDS, drugs/addiction, mental illness, and LBGTQ acceptance (amongst other issues) isn’t necessarily going to be high on entertainment, but, if the story is compelling and the characters well-drawn, that’s all I need – Ekaj delivers and more.

The most interesting aspect of Ekaj is the idea of non-actors being cast to lead and carry the movie. It’s a play that when it work, can yield genuine and authentic performances, however, on the flip side when the plan backfires, you get The 15:17 to Paris. Thankfully, Gonzalez’s strategy succeeds in the most successful of ways. Ekaj as a movie strives for a gritty realism in every aspect and the cast of non-actors surprisingly deliver just that, giving strong performances that belie their lack of experience. Jake Mestre plays the titular character with a solid assurance and his character is essentially the plot of the movie. Everything revolves around Ekaj and his interactions and setbacks – allowing for Mestre to really show some genuine emotion, especially in the heavy moments late on. The marvellously named Badd Idea is excellent as Mecca, a thief and hustler diagnosed with AIDS and struggling with drink problems – it could easily have been a thinly delivered caricature of a performance, but Badd Idea imbues a quality that elevates this to a really good showing. Together, the pair share a natural chemistry and provide the highlights of the movie.

 

The sharp, incisive dialogue, deliciously laced with black humour, provides a strong foundation for the excellent performances to build upon and the cinematography bristles with the confidence that Gonzalez photography skills allow. There’s a real artistic flair to the visuals, however, there’s substance behind them. Everything is framed and presented purposefully to create a striking image to accompany the raw narrative. The aforementioned issues are rife, though Gonzalez treats them with respect and there’s no judgement to be found here. It’s a presentation of the darker, grittier side of New York/life but for its starkness, there’s a compassion to be found and it’s this quality that helps Ekaj to shine.

 

Certain elements aren’t as strong as others, the character of Johnny (LaForge) – an abusive painter and Ekaj’s love interest - felt strangely disconnected from the more immediate story of Ekaj and Mecca. Whilst LaForge was fine, the performance wasn’t as assured as his peers. The soundtrack was fine but never really roped me in as much as the visuals. However, it never felt out of place.

 

Ekaj stands as a stark yet necessary movie for these times and it’s an exciting debut from Cati Gonzalez. If you enjoy character studies and deeper dives, you’ll be just fine here, however, if you’re after heart-pumping action and thrills, look elsewhere. This is bold, strong, heavy, gritty, raw, and for the majority of its runtime, an excellent slice of grim realism. Surreal yet sincere, and well worth a watch.

 

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April 9th 2019

© 2016 Matt Hudson / What I Watched Tonight / Essex

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