“Lost Angels” is a warm, humanistic portrait of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and much like the marginalized people it documents, it manages to walk an incredibly precarious line — celebrating the strong-willed characters who are allowed to thrive there without soft-pedaling the injustices that leave them with no other place to go. Expertly made and shot through with an undercurrent of righteous anger, director Thomas Napper’s docu is ultimately a tribute to the spirit of an area most would consider a simple urban blight, and should be a natural choice for fests with an activist bent.
With narration from Catherine Keener, the film charts out the basics of the roughly four-square-mile trapezoid, just east of downtown L.A., that constitutes one of the densest concentrations of homelessness in the country. Though the film is quick to point out that the area should not be thought of as a simple homeless enclave: Skid Row is more like a permanent internal refugee camp, the only area offering the kind of extremely cheap single-occupancy housing that those subsisting on government support checks (or less) can actually afford.
Stories of the residents here nearly all involve drugs, mental illness or a combination thereof. Yet the film is more interested in people than in statistics, and the stories these subjects tell extend far deeper than their sociological designations. There’s Danny Harris, a soft-spoken former Olympic sprinter laid low by drugs; Bam Bam, a wry transgendered punk straight out of ’77 Hell’s Kitchen; and Detroit, a very pretty young woman with serious emotional issues who, one imagines, had she been brought up in a wealthy family, would have likely written a “Prozac Nation”-style memoir about her troubles instead of ending up on the streets.
At the heart of the film is Kevin Cohen, aka K.K., a witty, likable middle-aged man with genuine affection for the neighborhood in which he is something of a de facto authority figure. He develops a touching friendship with Lee Anne, an elderly cat lover — she refers to him as her “fiance,” and he indulgently watches out for her as she pushes around a shopping cart collecting random items from garbage cans, though this habit makes no sense to him. “That’s just who she is,” he says, mirroring the sentiments of acceptance many other subjects ascribe to the area.
A distinctly political sense of urgency kicks in when the film begins to examine the Safer City Initiative of 2006. Intended to first heavily police Skid Row and then provide relief services, the measure only delivered on the first half of the equation, with battalions of cops merely tasked with clearing the streets, and occasionally arresting and brutalizing those living there. Cohen is called into action at a city council meeting to stand up for his neighborhood, and one realizes with some surprise that the film has led one to share his sentiments for the beleaguered district — so much so that a late reminder of the violence that still persists there is shattering.
Revealing camerawork seems attuned to the ebb and flow of the area, and insightful interviews with local activists and scholars help complete the picture.