Like a true movie star, Los Angeles knows just which camera angles and lighting are the most flattering for its closeup. Year after year, film after film, the city shows off the same glamorous side, from helicopter shots of the downtown skyline to glimpses of the Hollywood sign (always far enough away that the graffiti doesn’t show).
It’s become something of a hometown cliche, one reinforced by such aspirational shows as “Entourage” and “The Hills,” to show characters cruising down palm tree-lined Beverly Drive or backlit by the neon Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.
How refreshing then to see the city as it actually looks to residents, courtesy of a handful of indie helmers who’ve chosen to set their films in Los Angeles. When Marc Webb’s “500 Days of Summer” opened last year, many remarked on its virtually unrecognizable view of downtown L.A., with the romantic comedy unfolding amid a retro bubble of mid-century skyscrapers that deliberately omits both the city’s Art Deco heyday and its gleaming postmodern future (Webb took great care to keep structures like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall out of frame).
While “Iron Man 2” spotlights a local icon by posing Tony Stark at the center of the Randy’s Donut sign, smaller films such as “Greenberg,” “Cyrus,” “Mother and Child” and Los Angeles Film Fest opener “The Kids Are All Right” leave the landmarks behind, burrowing into the various residential neighborhoods to show a less familiar and ultimately more representative side of the city.
“Greenberg,” directed by New York native Noah Baumbach, opens with a smog-tinged view of L.A., as seen from the hiking trails near Runyon Canyon. We see car-congested streets draped in unsightly power lines — details (like the city’s ubiquitous billboards) that become invisible to locals over time. The Greenberg character doesn’t drive, but his girlfriend (played by actress Greta Gerwig) does, and the movie finds its groove simply observing her at the wheel of her car, with Sunset Boulevard strip malls blurring past her window.
There’s an uncommon beauty reflected in Baumbach’s sense of the city, with the haze giving everything an almost golden glow. Sure, you can detect a certain skepticism in the Brooklyn-born director’s gaze, but he’s clearly intrigued by the city and its contradictions: How can a place so obsessed with surface appearances be so oblivious to its own eyesores?
After leaving Mexico City for Los Angeles, “Mother and Child” director Rodrigo Garcia wove his conflicted impressions of his new home into each of his films. “When you first arrive in L.A., it seems like such a luscious town: the weather and the ocean and Hollywood and California. It promises so much, and then when you spend some time here, you realize like all the big cities, it’s isolating,” he says.
Whereas Paul Haggis articulated a similar philosophy at the outset of his film “Crash,” Garcia prefers to let audiences draw such observations on their own. When shooting his first feature, “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her,” Garcia noted that his crew always wanted to fill the scenes with more extras than he felt was accurate. “I remember the corner of Laurel and Riverside in North Hollywood on a hot summer day. You can stand there half an hour and no one walks by,” he explains.
With “Mother and Child,” he chose Northridge as home for Annette Bening’s character, who suspects the daughter she gave up for adoption 35 years earlier still lives in the same city. Garcia’s Angelenos are separated by sprawl, and yet, serendipity allows them to connect on the same suburban block at the end of the film.
Bening also plays a Los Angeles mom in “The Kids Are All Right,” which unfolds in the backyards and alleys of neighborhoods seldom shown on film. According to director Lisa Cholodenko, it was important to her that the central characters (a lesbian couple and their teenage kids — the Allgoods) should be an accessible, upper-middle-class family in a familiar metropolitan area, so Cholodenko chose trendy Venice.
“You live in L.A. and you get to know subcultures,” she says. “With the women, these aren’t people who live that far out of the box.” The two-mom aspect may make the Allgoods somewhat nonstandard, but their values are still rather conservative, qualities Cholodenko contrasts with the introduction of the kids’ sperm-donor father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a motorcycle-riding bachelor she describes as “a Silver Lake, Echo Park kind of guy.”
That Eastside sensibility also proves a good fit for John C. Reilly’s character in the upcoming Fox Searchlight release “Cyrus,” written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. Reilly plays John, a divorced apartment-dwelling man who dabbles in the film industry but doesn’t have much going in his personal life — a square guy living in Eagle Rock (which Jay Duplass calls home). John is every bit as uncomfortable as Greenberg when attending Los Angeles house parties (a far cry from the swanky soirees depicted in “Less Than Zero” or the more recent “Spread,” an L.A.-based cautionary tale featuring Ashton Kutcher as a Hollywood hustler).
Although indie directors are hardly immune to Hollywood allure — as illustrated by the trailer for Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” in which Stephen Dorff plays an actor living it up at the Chateau Marmont hotel — many seem to resist that allure as a way of injecting realism into a world often criticized for its superficiality. The “Cyrus” helmers actually gravitated even farther east (away from the excitement, as it were) when finding a home for John’s love interest, a single mother played by Marisa Tomei. Mark Duplass describes the character as, “the woman who moved into Highland Park in 1998 and got that house for $110,000 when it was just her and two gay people and 200,000 Mexican Americans.”
In the case of “500 Days of Summer,” Webb wanted to avoid some of the starving-artist stereotypes that accompany Angelenos who live and work downtown. The film was actually written for San Francisco, but the director had been shooting commercials and musicvideos in downtown L.A. for years and decided that the area brought “something different and less cutesy” to the project.
“It was about getting inside Tom’s head. My whole idea for the movie is that it feels like an old worn storybook,” says Webb, who welcomed the fact that audiences might mistake it for any city.
With each of these films, that universal, easily relatable quality is what makes the Los Angeles settings so remarkable. Instead of playing up the city’s differences, directors are finding ways of making Los Angeles feel like someplace relatively normal characters could call home. It’s a welcome development in a city that has lost much of its production to places offering tax breaks and incentives, suggesting a versatility that’s long been lacking in Los Angeles’ filmography.