The freshness distinguishing “Colma: the Musical” turns stale in “Fruit Fly,” which isn’t a sequel but brings back much of the talent behind that 2006 indie delight. Even more polished on a miniscule budget, this HD feature from composer/scenarist-turned-first-time director H.P. Mendoza looks and sounds good but nonetheless founders on low narrative drive, less-engaging characters and too many uninspired numbers. Like “Colma,” considerably tightened after its San Francisco Asian-American Fest preem, this could benefit from another editorial pass, perhaps sacrificing duller songs. Still, repeat charm is missing. Fest and DVD exposure is assured; theatrical prospects look iffier.
L.A. Renigen, whose Maribel was “Colma’s” least self-absorbed protag, returns in a more navel-gazing edition here. Her Bethesda is an adopted Filipina-American performance artist obsessed with finding her birth mother. Arriving in San Francisco’s Castro District, she’s the newbie in a communal flat of aspiring artists that include stage designer Windham (Mike Curtis); painter Karen (E.S. Park) and actress Sharon (Theresa Navarro), a lesbian couple; and teen runaway Jacob (Aaron Zaragoza).
To her annoyance, Bethesda is branded “fag hag” (also the name of the film’s entertainingly penned and staged first song), but she nonetheless becomes Windham’s nightly gay-bar tagalong, complete with morning-after hangover. Meanwhile, she pins her hopes on performing her autobiographical show at a competitive S.F. venue, discovers possible clues to her mom’s identity and beds vainglorious avant-magician Gaz (Christian Cagigal).
In “Colma,” the newly high-school-graduated characters’ snarky ‘tude was funny in part because it was clearly a defense against their myriad uncertainties as not-quite-grownups. Transplanted to narcissistically immature twenty- to-thirtysomethings, that arch humor is less appealing, and now seems to be the movie’s own p.o.v.
Mendoza’s condescending fun at the expense of insular theater and gay milieus covers familiar terrain with little distinction, while Bethesda’s performance-artist identification feels so two decades ago.
“Fruit Fly” is seldom as clever as it assumes it is. Plotwise, little happens, and once introduced, subsidiary strands (one involving Mendoza as Windham’s suitor) are simply neglected. When Bethesda sings “I’ll just pretend/There’s a happy end” and pronounces herself a “work in progress,” it feels like an subconscious confession of the script’s undernourishment.
Admittedly, 19 songs leave little room for narrative development. But they’re too often same-sounding laments, one-joke ideas or dialogues in song that strangle staging mobility. As a result, the highlights lean toward the few uptempo tunes that involve multiple onscreen participants and some (albeit simple) choreography, like catchy punk-pop “My Makeup.”
Spicing static interludes with candy-colored lighting, Richard Wong’s widescreen HD cinematography is a standout, as it was in “Colma” and last year’s less accessible nonmusical Mendoza collaboration “Option 3” (both of which Wong directed). Enlivening contributions are also made by Mark Del Lima’s animation segs, from the delightful opening/closing title designs to cool vidgame-like manipulations of San Francisco’s skyline.
Entire tech/design presentation is A-plus, given a budget not much greater than “Colma’s” $15,000. If only the content were as inspired or heartfelt.