Checking out the most recent indie film or a new play can be an uncomfortable experience, a little bit like watching a high-wire act at the circus. Will the rope-walker make it across? Will s/he stumble? Will we laugh or shrink in our seats when s/he hits the ground with an ugly thud?
Before I set foot into Opera Plaza's theaters, I'd heard that Colma: The Musical had been made on less than a shoestring budget, with the filmmaker paying for much of it himself. I'd been told it was made by college buddies. And I knew its storyline centered on the trials and tribulations of a gaggle of adolescents waxing philosophical in suburbia. This was a musical, mind you. I entered the theater cringing but curious, prepared for a cinematic belly-flop.
The story is set in Colma, CA, where heavy fog and one of the nation's largest collection of cemeteries add a touch of morbid charm to the standard suburban landscape. This town of squat, pastel-colored houses, headstones, stretches of big box stores and car dealerships is the quintessential teenage wasteland. And it's the perfect location to explore that grey space between The End of High School and the beginning of Whatever Comes Next.
Enter the three main characters: Billy Castillo, the mild-mannered thespian with the Kermit-the-Frog voice who's dead-set on landing a summer job, a girlfriend, and a speaking part in the local theater; Maribel, fun-loving, chic-ly attired partygirl, looking for a lighthearted summer or at least a good lay; and Rodel, the dark, romantic hero, seeking a way out of Colma, and struggling with his identity as a gay Filipino man, with a sense of flair and an acerbic wit that unnerves everyone around him.
Much of the film's action is driven by Rodel's fall-out with his conservative father, who discovers his son is gay from an ex-boyfriend, and Billy's relationship hang-ups: he's stuck between his ex-girlfriend and the possibility of a new relationship.
The film is grainy. At points the frame wobbles. Some of the dialog is a little wooden and the break-out musical numbers are accompanied by a chintzy-sounding electric keyboard. At its opening, the film seems as unstable and awkward as its main characters. Only the sweeping, fog-strewn shots of Colma and the soundtrack -- which is amazing throughout -- hold it together, allowing the plot to meander along with its wayward cast. To be sure, there are some incredibly inventive scenes early on: An a cappella duet with car alarm; a full-bar, first beer sing-along led by a Hulk Hogan look-a-like; and plenty of wicked one-liners and inside jokes that just barely stumble clear of corny. But it's not until the film's end that the musical numbers begin to land like punches, enhancing the storyline and evoking the adolescent angst and wonder of that desolate space after high school.
Though it falters here and there, Colma: The Musical comes through in the end. Part of me wonders whether the stumbling served to heighten the dramatic tension. By the last scenes, you find yourself cheering for the film as much as for its characters, who somehow stumble over the abyss and safely reach the other side. Colma successfully does what any good independent should, taking huge risks on a tight budget and, despite the odds, playfully carrying it all off with an almost artless sense of ease.
More at colmafilm.com