Diversity is the star of Ernesto M. Foronda and Silas Howard’s “Sunset Stories,” a deliberately nontraditional romantic comedy that embraces the sort of actors — and characters — typically marginalized by mainstream swooners. Beyond the respect the pic pays people of color and its non-straight supporting characters, however, all that remains is a meandering indie about an unpleasant, tightly wound nurse (Monique Gabriela Curnen) who loses track of the bone marrow she’s transporting to Los Angeles, forcing her to get her hands dirty interacting with the city’s eccentric locals. Fest play should give this affable ensembler enough momentum for a modest release.
Introduced at Sundance in 2002, Foronda (co-scribe on “Better Luck Tomorrow”) and Howard (who helmed “By Hook or by Crook”) began a conversation that culminated in their making a different kind of film than the industry was seeking, one that wasn’t bound to a bunch of cookie-cutter white characters, but instead reflected the rich mix they saw around themselves. Presented as the realistic answer to fairy-tale romances, the contempo story begins with May (Curnen, who looks like a Latina version of Katie Holmes), still smarting from her breakup with Asian b.f. JP (Sung Kang).
May works in a children’s chemo ward, where she comforts the young patients with cheery platitudes. When one of the cancer victims (“Girls'” Zosia Mamet) rejects her implausibly cheery bedtime stories, May decides to share a personal incident instead, spinning a saga with an independent-minded female character that begins with her rejecting a potential Prince Charming. While glimpses of handcrafted animation suggest a fanciful aspect to May’s tale, the re-enactment is strictly real-world, revealing that the incident described is in fact a memory of a life-changing trip to Los Angeles.
Given a 24-hour window within which to deliver a cooler containing human tissue to a hospital in L.A., May flies from the East Coast to her old stomping grounds, promptly losing the package at the hotel where her ex happens to be performing. Once an aspiring rock star, JP now plays wedding gigs (and likes them). May, on the other hand, is pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse, but seems uncertain that she made the right decision with her life.
As written, May’s character poses a tricky challenge for the film. Her personality is shrill, uptight and overly controlling, made all the more off-putting by her lack of self-awareness, though Curnen ameliorates these prickly qualities by supplying her own intelligence and charm. When May’s cooler goes missing, she turns to JP for help, while the story instantly broadens out to involve all of the other characters who come in contact with the package over the course of the night.
While the chase itself is beside the point, the film relies on the cooler’s progress to justify the inclusion of a hipster hustler (Joshua Leonard); his cabaret-singing, gender-bending g.f. (Justin Vivian Bond); a butch old mechanic (Sandy Martin in a part written for a man); a talented graffiti tagger on the fence about art school (Andrea Sixtos); and a struggling actor reduced to Hollywood Boulevard costume play (Mousa Kraish). Of this crowd, only Sixtos’ character is fully developed, and yet, the group is eccentric enough to convey the helmers’ point that Los Angeles overflows with oddball personalities.
The pic further flatters the city with bright lensing and jaunty energy, though there’s a piecemeal quality to the assembly, in which the animation disappears early on, the music style is constantly changing and subplots involving side characters dead-end, unresolved. “Sunset Stories” does a fair job of capturing the joys and pains of life in L.A., but the marrow is definitely missing.