Review: ‘Liberty Kid’

In writer-director Ilya Chaiken's sophomore outing, almost everything of dramatic import transpires offscreen, starting with the attacks on the World Trade Center and ending with the Iraq war.

In writer-director Ilya Chaiken’s sophomore outing (after her well-received “Margarita Happy Hour”), almost everything of dramatic import transpires offscreen, starting with the attacks on the World Trade Center and ending with the Iraq war. Doodling in the margins of these two monumental events, Chaiken focuses on the fortunes of two Brooklyn homies who lose their jobs at the Statue of Liberty following 9/11. Winner of the top film prize at the New York Latino fest (leave it to Tribeca to corner every DV-shot 9/11 pic and miss the best one), the breezily indirect “Liberty Kid” could score with indie auds.

Self-styled visionary Derrick (Al Thompson) aspires to more than his dead-end job at the Liberty Island concession stand. He plans to pass his GED and go to college, though how he intends to do so while paying child support for his adorable 3-year-old twins remains hazy. Tico (Kareem Savinon), on the other hand, lives in the moment, savoring weed, women and song.

Chaiken’s not one for straight-ahead exposition, and it takes viewers a while to sort out who’s who in Derrick’s extended Dominican family or Tico’s network of homeboys and girls. From the outset, work gives shape and structure to the two friends’ days as they wake each other up, hop the ferry, load and unload supplies and pick up pretty women with practiced ease, their daily routine presented in smooth-flowing montages before catastrophe strikes.

The first plane hitting the World Trade Center’s north tower provides a rude awakening for Derrick, napping on the ferry on his way to work. But shock and incredulity immediately give way to more prosaic considerations. As Derrick, Tico and friends stride past walls covered with photos of the missing, the drama is not death and destruction, but a three-hour walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge and the shutdown of the Statue of Liberty.

Unable to find another job, Derrick reluctantly joins Tico, who has drifted into small-time drug-dealing, soon becoming accustomed to the good life. But a robbery and a romantic betrayal drive Derrick into the waiting clutches of army recruiters who buttonhole him after a GED exam, their slick “concerned” spiel expertly blending fact and fiction.

Chaiken represents Derrick’s experience in Iraq as a simple fade to black. His return is unseen and unheralded as he wanders, almost shell-shocked, in and out of the story. His silence, sometimes broken by measured speech, manifests deep trauma.

Evident throughout is Chaiken’s ability to patiently build a scene without fanfare or artifice. Her highly evolved feel for dialogue, here the soft-shoe patter of longtime friends, goes a long way toward naturalizing this rather high-concept undertaking, further helped by the seeming casualness of Thompson and Savinon’s sharp thesping.

Tech credits are fine. Eliot Rockett’s crisp HD lensing formulates abstract compositions within glaringly real locations,while smoothly kinetic editing by Chaiken and Dave Rock makes any discontinuity or sudden absence seem that much more jarring.

Liberty Kid

Production

A Glass Eye Pix presentation, in association with RingTheJing Entertainment, of a Glass Eye Pix production. Produced by Roger Kass, Mike S. Ryan, Larry Fessenden. Executive producers, Claude Wasserstein, Andrea Van Beuren. Co-producer, Mike King. Directed, written by Ilya Chaiken.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Eliot Rockett; editor, Chaiken, Dave Rock; music, Jeff Grace; music supervisor, Alan Wilkis; production designer, Jesse Cain; sound, Josh Anderson; casting, Victoria Asness, Nate Williams. Reviewed at New York Latino Film Festival, July 28, 2007. (Also in Los Angeles Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Al Thompson, Kareem Savinon, Raquel Jordan, Rosa Ramos, Anny Mariano, Johnny Rivera, Rayniel Rufino. (English, Spanish dialogue)
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