An adventurous experiment letting loose 20 directors on Michelle Tea’s cult-adored novel/memoir, “Valencia” is as much deconstruction as adaptation. An equal number of actors — not all of them female — play Tea’s hapless heroine, who petulantly plows through numerous girlfriends, jobs, artistic aspirations and mind-altering substances in the punky lesbian hipster scene of pre-dot-com-boom 1990s San Francisco. Like the book, the episodic pic is driven more by style and attitude than by narrative; while the constant diversity of approach is always stimulating, at nearly two hours it grows a little exhausting. Nonetheless, further fest travel and niche ancillary sales are assured.
We first meet “Michelle” as she expresses her dissatisfaction with a tedious rent-paying day job and semi-girlfriend Willa, who seems to want some kind of relationship without commitment or sex. Soon shedding both, she gets a new g.f. in Georgia emigre Iris (played, like the central character, by numerous thesps), and briefly finds new high-paying but low-morale employment at a Marin bordello.
There’s much hanging out, clubbing, drinking, occasional drugging and angsting over each new love’s failings. “I’m an artist! And a lover!” Michelle keeps protesting. But her attention span re: the latter activity is not so hot, and it takes a while before she actually has an artistic outlet (as we see her read at open-mike nights).
Among the more notable segments are a magic-mushroom trip sequence partially done as claymation; an uncomfortable road trip to the heartland for Iris’ prudish sister’s wedding; a slumming period with manic Space (Space Devon Bouvier), who believes he communicates with UFOs; and a new relationship with Cecelia (Rowan Parks), a knife-play enthusiast and alcoholic who initially satisfies all Michelle’s wild-side desires, but then disappoints by cleaning up her act. By the end our frequently bridge-burning heroine has acquired “a tiny army of girls I needed to avoid.”
Stubbornly freeform (several segments don’t have any screenplay credits), “Valencia” also makes room for footage shot at San Francisco’s Dyke March and Gay Pride Parade; briefly “repurposed” pre-existing footage of Winona Ryder and other recognizable faces; sequences in which, without explanation, we’re suddenly in Brooklyn, Austin or Portland; and others where men in or out of drag are ostensibly playing the primary lesbian characters. One uniting factor is a soundtrack of vintage queercore and alt-rock tracks by bands like Team Dresch, Bratmobile, Tribe 8, Bikini Kill and Pansy Division.
The filmmakers — most but not all gay — include some familiar indie names (Cheryl Dunye, Jill Soloway, Silas Howard) as well as video artists, documentarians and a lesbian porn specialist. Like the onscreen Michelle, who’s whining about her lovelife one minute and picking a fight with a huge bouncer the next, results are all over the map. The effect is often bracing, but the lack of any real narrative or emotional throughline means there’s little cumulative impact, further underlined by the non-ending.
Shot in myriad formats, ranging from gritty to earnest, campy and experimental in tone, “Valencia” is nothing if not resourceful. Numerous original scenesters (Tea included) make cameo appearances, no doubt with a certain nostalgic wistfulness — the San Francisco of cheap communal crash pads, fringe galleries and dive bars depicted here is very far from the city today, with its sky-high cost of living and Valencia Street itself drastically altered by gentrification. If Tea wrote the book now, it would probably be set in Portland.