In making his movie Tenderloin, Marin-based director Michael Anderson had a few disadvantages.
First, it would seem that he is not the other, more famous Michael Anderson -- the Oscar-nominated British director of, among other things, The Dam Busters, Around the World in Eighty Days and Logan's Run.
Second, the provenance of our Anderson's film, while self-evident to denizens of San Francisco, might strike more far-flung viewers as misleading. Alas, this is not a movie about a luxurious cut of beef. It is a movie about the city's most famously downtrodden neighborhood.
It is also the setting of local filmmaker Rob Nilsson's 9 @ Night cycle of interconnected, community-made feature films, which premiered here two years ago and remains in its way definitive, a tough act to follow. Which is not to say that there's only one way (or nine ways) to make a movie about a place like this.
Downtrodden, yes. Famously? Was that the right word? Well, after that article about Tenderloin tourism in the New York Times the other day, it might soon be. And perhaps this fact constitutes the thorniest of Anderson's disadvantages: the potential for the romanticization of disadvantage.
To be sure, Tenderloin, has an amateurish air, but that's at least in part because it's obviously a labor of love, self-evidently so affectionate toward the beleaguered neighborhood. We can tell right away this isn't some slick glossing over by a Hollywood carpetbagger. Anderson doesn't flinch from squalor. If anything, he almost revels in it.
Kurt Yaeger plays Ben, an Iraq war veteran whose tour of duty in Fallujah cost him a leg and whose subsequent anger mismanagement cost him a happily-ever-after life with his wife and young son. Now he's found work as the manager of a local residential hotel, fixing skuzzy toilets, dodging all manner of neighborhood menace and trying to avoid handing out eviction notices on behalf his sleazebag boss.
Ned Miller's script seems occasionally confused and often contrived, but it is not without a certain rangy, streety charm. Its central concern, expressed clearly enough, is the question of whether Ben will be stuck here, just one more permanent transient with nowhere left to go, or if the Tenderloin can offer him, at last, a community to which he belongs. His neighbors are a motley but affable bunch, many contending with vicious cycles of their own. As one new friend, a sweetly flirty tranny, puts it, "I hook because I need the junk; I need the junk because I hook." Another, when told he needs to get a life, says, "They don't make 'em in my size."
Anderson also has helped his cause by stocking his cast with compellingly lived-in faces (some of them familiar to Bay Area theater and movie loyalists). Where the dramatics of Tenderloin don't always succeed, its portraiture of place seems impeccably genuine.
Which perhaps goes to show, as anyone who's ever spent any time in the Tenderloin probably already knows, that being no stranger to disadvantage sometimes can become an advantage.
Tenderloin plays Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, with director Michael Anderson, screenwriter Ned Miller and star Kurt Yaeger in person. For tickets and information, visit cafilm.org.