From the start, George Gallo’s autobiographical feel-good drama “Local Color” warns auds that cynics may object to the sentiment about to overwhelm the screen. Alas, even the soft-hearted may find this formulaic yarn of a young man’s apprenticeship to a cantankerous artist too rosy-hued and treacly. With its by-the-book structure and cliched plot, pic wants to flex some cinematic muscle but despite widescreen format remains a strictly small screen affair.
Undoubtedly a personally meaningful labor of love, painter/scripter/helmer Gallo and past producer/collaborator David Permut raised the $5 million budget mostly through friends and acquaintances, shooting in just 25 days. Pic was one of the last films lensed in Louisiana (successfully posing as Pennsylvania) before Katrina took its toll.
John (Trevor Morgan, “Mean Creek”) is a starry-eyed high schooler in 1974 Port Chester, N.Y., who is convinced he’ll leave his mark on the world of painting one day. A devoted admirer of reclusive artist Nicholai Seroff (Armin Mueller Stahl), John ignores advice and presents himself at Seroff’s screen door.
Predictably, the old man isn’t interested in pupils or even conversations with the fresh-faced kid, but — surprise! — persistence pays off and John displays his knowledge of art theory to a reluctantly impressed Seroff, who invites “the little shit” to spend the summer at his Pennsylvania home.
John’s working class dad (Ray Liotta) is convinced the old guy’s a pervert and forbids John from going, but with starry-eyed determination, John sets off anyway.
Initially Seroff simply has the young man deal with household chores, though eventually he opens John’s eyes to the fundamentals of landscape painting.
Of course John also gets his first real kiss that summer, from older neighbor Carla (Samantha Mathis), so art and life and love all come together in a golden haze of nostalgia-drenched light.
But, not content with making this a simple tale of artistic awakening, Gallo throws in simplistic swipes at the pretensions of contemporary art critics who dismiss the beauty of representational works. All this heavy-handed debate stops the drama cold.
Nonetheless, Mueller Stahl avoids the schmaltz and provides a glimpse of a man beyond mere stereotype. Looking like the perfect Fox juvenile, Morgan does his best with stilted lines, his eyes glistening appropriately in the late summer light. As a modern art dealer, Ron Perlman, kitted up in queeny ascots, is just cartoonish, and Diana Scarwid has a thankless role as John’s German-born mother, her accent and character equally indefinable.
Gallo’s choice of widescreen was perhaps a result of his desire to glorify landscape art, and Michael Negrin’s lensing takes advantage of the natural beauty. Incidental music predictably swells during emotional moments, only heightening the pic’s sappiness; the generous smattering of Cat Stevens tunes does a better job at capturing the period than the generic production design.