Offbeat road movie “Sparkler” is an often funny, always captivating ride through the kitschy underbelly of life on the road to Vegas. A big part of its quirky charm comes courtesy of two sparkling perfs from femme thesps Park Overall and Veronica Cartwright. First-time feature helmer Darren Stein nearly loses control of pic toward the end, but the strong cast, original script and unique ambience make this sometimes bumpy cinematic ride a memorable trip. Though it won’t be an easy sell in an ultra-crowded indie marketplace, the comic drama is bound to spark curiosity from specialized distribs and could click with fans of David Lynch and Gus Van Sant.
Story revolves around Melba May (Overall), a spunky, somewhat spacey trailer-park gal in Victorville, Calif., just off the desert highway to Las Vegas. Splitting with her boorish husband, Flint (Don Harvey), when she spies him getting it on with one of her girlfriends, she takes refuge with her strange mother, Sherri (Grace Zabriskie), who has Melba seek advice from a phone psychic.
No sooner is Melba told to keep her eyes peeled for three kings than she meets three guys whom she immediately takes to be the specified trio of monarchs. The young men — Trent (Jamie Kennedy), Brad (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Joel (Steven Petrarca) — who are on their way to Vegas to attempt to win enough money to pay a load of back rent, spot Melba at the local watering hole decked out in all her luminous, down-market glory and immediately dub her the “Sparkler.”
Although not entirely welcome, Melba decides to follow them to Vegas. Meanwhile, Flint is awakened one morning by sweepstakes reps bearing a check made out to Melba for $1 million. But Melba must accept the prize money in person, so Flint makes a beeline for Vegas to try to con the money out of his estranged wife.
In Vegas, pic takes a turn toward burlesque when Melba meets old high school pal Dottie Delgato (Cartwright), who is now a bisexual stripper working at a club called the Crack and living with the butch lesbian owner, Ed (Sandy Martin). As all the principals convene in the gambling capital, manic plot threatens to unravel, but it is revived by a rousing ending that finds a newly empowered Melba emerging victorious.
Stein manages to spoof Melba’s trailer-park lifestyle without being dismissive, and his overall approach works because he succeeds in making Melba such an appealing character, with Overall providing a bundle of gritty charm in the role. The three middle-class guys are not nearly so well drawn, but the real scene-stealer is Cartwright in a standout perf as the aging stripper. She takes over the film in the final third and fills the screen with her sexy, funny, poignant presence. Harvey is likable as Melba’s two-timing husband, as is Zabriskie as her neurotic mom.
Lenser Rodney Taylor and production designer Chris DiLeo have contributed to a colorful portrait of an evocative landscape littered with trailer parks, strip clubs, dark small-town bars and Vegas casinos. Much thought was also put into the wide-ranging musical selections that highlight the kitschy culture of the main characters.