Set in Manhattan's vibrant, multicultural Lower East Side, "The Headhunter's Sister" offers a fascinating portrait of a truly odd urban community whose members are refugees in both geographical and sociocultural ways.

Set in Manhattan’s vibrant, multicultural Lower East Side, “The Headhunter’s Sister” offers a fascinating portrait of a truly odd urban community whose members are refugees in both geographical and sociocultural ways. Boasting an intricate structure, sharp characterization and dense texture, Scott Saunders’ second directorial effort, a highlight of the L.A. Indie fest this year, deserves serious consideration by distributors for limited theatrical release.

At heart, “The Headhunter’s Sister” is a coming-of-age story, except that the protagonist, Ray (Bob McGrath), is not the customary teenager in such fare, but a middle-aged man. Unanticipated circumstances force Ray to mature and come to terms with his feelings and responsibilities as husband, brother, friend — and human being. The impetus for Ray’s identity crisis is provided by Linda (Elizabeth Schofield), his younger sister, a suburban wife and mother who’s visiting from Santa Monica and who is in the midst of a marital breakup.Displaying a slice of contempo New York as a commune of refugees, story revolves around characters who have arrived with vague hopes and real expectations for a better, more fulfilling life. When Linda’s first Big Apple weekend begins, she feels like an alien who’s landed on another planet, barely able to communicate to her brother, a grubby but bright tenement dweller. Still living a bohemian life more suited to someone in his 20s, the fortysomething Ray is a successful headhunter — or, as somebody in the film says, a legal recruiter — who insists on getting paid in cash so that he doesn’t have to file taxes. With no bank account, credit cards or health insurance, Ray is an anomaly not only in his business milieu, but also in New York.

Ray has recently married Teresa (Isabel Robayo), a sensuous immigrant from Colombia, so she could get her green card, but he can’t have any verbal interaction with her. To make a living, Teresa performs Spanish-language phone sex in a sweat shop, which brings her closer to a whole network of Spanish-speaking friends. But she’s still lonely and culturally isolated, and renews contact with Luis (Roberto De La Pena), her former lover who’s now a heavy-duty drug addict. What complicates these already messed-up lives is Ray’s falling in love with his wife, and the latter’s ensuing dilemma over lovers who could not be more different.

Saunders, who acquits himself more impressively as a scripter than director, constructs a gripping summer tale, punctuated by Linda’s three visits to New York, each precipitating a significant transformation in the characters’ personalities and their complex relationships with one another. Unusually rich in text and subtext, “Headhunter’s Sister” offers the pleasures of a thick narrative with layers of meaning, a rarity even among indie films.

Technically, this low-budgeter, reportedly shot in only 14 days, is modest. But physical shortcomings matter little because the story is always absorbing and the acting uniformly high, particularly by McGrath, who looks and sounds like Dustin Hoffman. Pic is occasionally marred by helmer’s penchant for excessive intercutting and parallel montages, which are meant to convey the simultaneous actions of the characters but ultimately detract and distract from the story. Saunders, who also cut his movie, could benefit from the service of a more detached editor, who would have given the yarn a more varied and nuanced tempo.

The Headhunter's Sister

Production

A Scott Saunders production. Produced by Scott Saunders, Bob McGrath, Elizabeth Chae. Directed, written, edited by Scott Saunders; story, Saunders, Bob McGrath, Raquel Gutierez.

Crew

Camera (color), Chris Bos; music, Michael Montes; art direction, Laurie Olinder; sound, Antonio Arroyo; associate producer, Christopher Cooke; assistant director, Andrea Ashton; casting, Meredith Jacobson Marciano. Reviewed at L.A. Independent Film Festival, April 4, 1997. Running time: 96 min.

With

Ray - Bob McGrath Linda - Elizabeth Schofield Harlan - Michael Harris Teresa - Isabel Robayo Wayne - M.W. Reid Boyd - Richard Sheinmel Luis - Roberto De La Pena Vinnie - James Vincent Romano
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