A celebrated San Francisco wordsmith's reluctant return home to New Mexico and his dying father.
Director Victor Nunez bounces back to top form with this offbeat project about a celebrated San Francisco wordsmith’s reluctant return home to New Mexico and his dying father. “Spoken Word” benefits from an improbably perfect storm of production circumstances: The muscular, balanced script, the brainchild of an unusual alliance between professional poet Joe Ray Sandoval and TV writer William T. Conway, consistently plays to Nunez’s strengths. The dynamite cast makes poetry sexy and fatherhood a flawed but sacred font of wisdom. Nimbly avoiding artsy pretension, this kinetic and emotionally resonant film could duplicate the helmer’s earlier successes.
With commendable economy, the pic establishes just how swimmingly things are going for Cruz (Kuno Becker) in San Francisco. When not reciting his work to adoring fans on the spoken-word circuit, he teaches poetry to appreciative teens and happily tumbles around with his sexy, tattooed artist g.f., Shae (Persia White). All the while, a judicious mix of pills keeps his bipolar disorder firmly in check.
Once back in New Mexico, however, Cruz’s hard-won stability is shaken by two contrasting paternal figures: his dying father, Cruz Sr. (Ruben Blades), and his old boss, businessman/gangster Emilio (Miguel Sandoval). The question becomes whether Cruz can connect with the first before getting destroyed by the second.
Unlike his straight-arrow brother, Raymond (Antonio Elias), who has sold his portion of the ancestral acres for bourgeois respectability, Cruz is obviously a chip off the old block; he and his father exude a palpable, almost tribal intensity, linked to each other and to the land. But though both speak the same language, Cruz Sr. remains locked in prideful self-sufficiency, unable or unwilling to open up to his son.
Frustrated, Cruz unwisely reaccepts his old job as manager/emcee of Emilio’s nightclub, restoring it to its former splendor but losing his way to wine, women and bitterness. Cruz’s lost poetic voice resurfaces only via snatches of spoken verse, accompanied by fragmented, dissolved imagery that lies just outside the narrative.
Conway and Sandoval’s script gives full reign to Nunez’s uncanny ability to embed his characters in uniquely integral locales. The helmer stages Cruz’s struggle not in moral terms, but through his interaction with contrasting milieus: Cruz Sr.’s house is at one with nature, whereas the nightclub percolates with nervous, purely man-made energy, rife with possibilities.
Finally, however, it is the virile, charismatic authority of Becker’s presence that anchors the pic in time and space, much as Ashley Judd’s aura accentuated the Florida coast in “Ruby in Paradise” or Peter Fonda’s countenance offset the Florida panhandle of “Ulee’s Gold.”
Tech credits are aces; lensing by Nunez regular Virgil Mirano captures New Mexico’s subtly variegated palette, reflected also in Bryce Perrin’s production design and Lahly Poore’s costumes.