Despite getting good critical reviews, the US low-budget film ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ went largely unnoticed when it was released in 1998. That’s a pity because not only is it a fine film in its own right but it’s an interesting insight into US independent cinema in the 1990s and since then.
Set in 1976, the film focuses on the Abromowtiz family (single father, three children) who are living a dismal existence in an endless series of dismal motels while their ne’er-do-well father Murray (Alan Arkin) can’t provide them a stable existence. This is told from the perspective of teenage daughter Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) who – because of a lack of stable adult authority figures – has to stumble through the experiences teenage girls go through on her own.
The film doesn’t really have a narrative as such, it’s more of a snapshot of this particular family in this particular era and on that level it succeeds very well. We see the ethos and mindset of a family that has had better times and probably a comfortable middle-class existence in the past, that is now struggling to keep their heads above water. Also, despite its limited budget it convincingly captures of the period feel of life in 1970s American suburbia without resorting to clichés (most of the time anyway).
A big factor in the film’s success is Lyonne’s performance. Her role is the centrepiece of the film and it’s a fairly challenging role to play; if she’d stumbled, the film probably would’ve fallen apart. But she’s excellent in persuasively conveying a teenager who’s a mixture of insecurity, daring, awkwardness and brashness. She helps make Vivian and likable without pandering to the audience’s sympathies and it’s not surprising that after being stalled by personal troubles in the 2000s, Lyonne has gone on to a successful acting career with the talent on display here.
The smartest move writer/director Tamara Jenkins does is that it doesn’t try to make this a story of triumph where troubled characters with deep flaws overcome their problems to create a phony triumphant ending. She’s more interesting in portraying them as they are and with great empathy in how they bumble from one experience to another in life.
This is best demonstrated in the character of family cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), who stays with the family after running away from a rehab clinic. She’s clearly a frazzled mess, so totally lost in life that her desperate and delusional attempt to become a nurse is only going to end in failure. But the film treats her compassionately and for how all her flaws she has good soul and a confidant for Vivian. Wherever her life goes post-1976, you can’t help but wish her well.
The appearance of Alan Arkin as the hapless father is interesting in a context beyond the film itself. He had an excellent run in US cinema from roughly 1966 to 1980 as the ‘New Hollywood’ era of wanting challenging stories and real, unconventional characters created a culture where someone with his idiosyncratic, character-based talents could become a significant star.
But in the 1980s as Hollywood turned to special-effects, big-budget, bombastic films with even more bombastic personalities, Arkin’s talents fell out of favour and seemed that his career may drift away. But in the 1990s there was a revival of sorts of the independent, outsider, eccentric, lower-budget style of cinema and films like this were symbolic of that and that’s where Arkin prospered and he’s clearly having a great time with this role.
For all its strengths and appeal, ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ isn’t a perfect film. It’s shambling, non-narrative structure is one of its charms but can be a weakness as on occasion it feels rather shambling and messy. A section involving Murray’s interactions with a new love interest (a wasted Jessica Walter) goes nowhere, a segment where Vivian actually goes to a doctor to inquire about breast reduction surgery doesn’t convince on many levels and there’s a scene where an interaction between Murray and Rita that turns perverse that the film doesn’t really know how to handle.
Also, while it avoids most of the clichés of nostalgia films set in the 1970s, it does indulge a lot in the common one of showing TV footage from many popular shows of the day. Apparently there’s an unwritten rule in Hollywood that any film set in the 1970s has to have a scene where someone is watching Archie Bunker or Mannix.
Probably the film’s biggest issue is that it lacks that level of social penetration and insight that the best of ‘New Hollywood’ independent 1970s cinema had. It displays empathy and sympathy for the central family but the in-depth social detail that could make their plight more penetrating isn’t there. Instead it replaces this with a level of quirkiness (a common trait of modern US indy cinema), which is best illustrated by a supporting character’s seeming total fascination surrounding Charles Manson and his infamous murders; there’s even a scene where he takes Vivian & Rita to where apparently Manson and his ‘family’ committed their murders. It really doesn’t add much to the film.
But despite these issues, ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ is a fine film well worth seeking out. Jenkins has only made one film since then but does have another in the works; naturally as reflective of the late 2010s cinema, it’s being produced by Netflix.