Where Paul Haggis’ “Crash” found touch-deprived Angelenos striving for contact via auto collisions, “Garden Party’s” City of Angels ensemble favors the old-fashioned bump and grind. Sex connects the disparate characters in writer-director Jason Freeland’s sophomore feature, a loosely structured adaptation of his own short stories about the myriad humiliations of chasing fame in Hollywood. The promise of perversion could draw college-aged crowds, but this unrated Roadside Attractions release isn’t racy enough to warrant the word of mouth necessary to make pic a sensation with its generation, the way the unrelated disaffected-twentysomething hit “Garden State” was.
Clearly disenchanted with the town that allowed a decade to elapse since his directorial debut, “Brown’s Requiem,” Freeland weaves together stories of those willing to trade just a little bit of their souls for a shot at fame: would-be singers, dancers and actresses who drift into Hollywood on long-shot hopes, naive enough to let others take advantage of them.
There’s April (Willa Holland), who escapes the leering gaze of her stepfather, only to pose naked for a porn photographer (Patrick Fischler). Nathan (Alex Cendese) dreamed of dancing, but now finds himself delivering pot for his boss (Vinessa Shaw), a real-estate agent who can’t quite live down the nude photos she took 10 years earlier. Sammy (Erik Scott Smith) is still optimistic, a talented musician living off leftover pizza as he tries to find a band that will let him sing lead.
The appeal of watching the characters’ struggles may be prurient (though nothing more than a fleeting glimpse of toplessness is ever shown), but the effect is more like a visit to the pound — so much suffering amid such desperate need of parental figures. Their lives eventually intersect, but in more or less arbitrary ways: The first old letch to hit on April is the same one who snapped Sally’s photos 10 years earlier. Sammy needs a place to crash, and Nathan craves some same-sex tenderness, so the two connect for a night.
The rhythm advances unevenly as the pic skips from scene to scene, with no overarching plot to drive the action. By the end, one of the damaged young things will have reached the big time, while another will be heading back to Nebraska. That seems to be Freeland’s philosophy in a nutshell: Some are lucky, others don’t make it, but the meat grinder goes right on devouring all takers. Particularly telling is Ross Patterson’s over-the-top music manager, who represents the other side: a privileged, second-generation industry kid, most likely college-educated and wholly over-confident.
Sammy’s teenybopper ballads lend a certain tonal consistency to the whole, and there’s even one of those “Magnolia”-like montages at the end that reveals the melancholy fates of all involved beneath the title song. But overall, the affair seems just a little too jaded, perpetuating one facet of a sordid L.A. stereotype to the exclusion of the big picture.
Such subject matter may fall squarely in Larry Clark territory, but Freeland and cinematographer Robert Benavides give it a far more professional polish. Pic should bring some heat back to the helmer’s career, but doesn’t seem likely to launch its young leads. They’re perfectly adequate, but not the stuff stars are made of — which basically seems to be the point.