Salvatore Stabile’s Gotham-set drama about one family’s struggle with homelessness is the sort of film typically praised for successfully negotiating a sentimental minefield. But “Where God Left His Shoes” piles the pathos high as if to see how many hard-luck cliches its pugilist hero can fend off without succumbing to schmaltz. Given John Leguizamo’s knockout perf, sentimentality never dares raise its head, and the improbably stacked deck from which his character is dealt gives the pic’s would-be “neo-realist” premise a peculiar edge. Appealing to cynics and softies alike, “Shoes” could prove a small-scale holiday sleeper Stateside.
Stabile doesn’t cut his protagonist any slack. Unlike Leguizamo’s champion boxer role in his self-helmed “Undefeated,” his character here, Frank Diaz, is washed up in the fight game before the movie starts. As a result, Frank finds himself, along with his wife Angela (Leonor Varela), little girl Christina (Samantha Rose) and 10-year-old stepson Justin (David Castro), in a homeless shelter.
A Christmas miracle consisting of an affordable low-income house is dangled in front of him, but he must find a job first — before 6 p.m. Christmas Eve. In addition, Frank is saddled with a resentful stepson with a twisted ankle and a low opinion of paternal figures (shades of “Pursuit of Happyness” and its father-son bonding, job-seeking jaunt). And, just in case there was the slightest chance Frank might meet the employment requirement, Stabile throws in a couple of extra ringers — Frank has a criminal record and cannot read.
Stabile displays a fine grasp of the city and of its denizens: Leguizamo’s run-ins with sympathetic bureaucrats and city workers, crass construction bosses and harried businessmen feel achingly real, particularly when transpiring at recognizably authentic locations. A veritable sea of pedestrians floods Times Square where an ill-at-ease Frank and his sad-eyed stepson are reduced to panhandling.
Impressive also are the little cadges and corner-cutting the down-on-its luck family has incorporated into its daily existence (like wife Angela dignifiedly walking out of a restaurant without paying), reminiscent of the makeshift nesting instincts of the uprooted clan in Jim Sheridan’s “In America.”
The emotional struggles, though occasionally clumsily written, are so amazingly well acted that the awkwardness almost seems willed, as if the banality of their situation and inadequacy of their words were adding further psychological roadblocks to normalcy.
Stabile, whose zero-budget 1997 student feature “Gravesend” attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone, did not make another feature for 10 years, working mainly in TV (including penning a “Sopranos” episode). Though “Shoes” traces its genesis to Stabile’s Gotham childhood, its approach to the material is cannily conceived: The extent to which the script deliberately brings up every hackneyed trope in the Christmas movie canon reps a sophisticated and somewhat subversive version of Hollywood’s penchant for having its sad/happy endings read both ways.
Tech credits are fine, Vanja Cernjul’s Super-16mm lensing lending a poetic realism to the city, particularly in the film’s parting shots.