While not entirely successful, the debut feature from Cauleen Smith is nonetheless the work of a distinctive filmmaker whose talents deserve a better script. Smith displays a strong feel for character and a good eye for composition in this story of an independent young woman who spends her time taking Polaroids of African-American men to document their existence, out of fear that they will soon be extinct. While weak plotting. languid pacing and rock-bottom budget dampen any major theatrical hopes, pic does an excellent job of capturing its environment, and could do limited business in urban niches given some TLC and focused marketing. But “Drylongso” will better serve as a calling card for producer-director-editor-cowriter Smith.
Pica Sullivan (Toby Smith) is first seen sitting on the porch of her West Oakland home, her mother’s loud party having forced her out of the house. When she witnesses a woman, Tobi (April Barnett), being hit and left on the curb by an abusive boyfriend, she tries to help her. It shortly emerges that Pica is a second-semester college student who is almost failing her photography class because she refuses to use a 35mm camera and is too busy making the rent by pasting her neighborhood with missing children posters to attend class regularly.
When she meets Tobi again, the abused woman has responded to her situation by dressing up like a male gang-banger. A sweet, if only half-developed, love relationship springs up between Pica and Malik (Will Power), a local T-shirt dealer who reads tarot cards. His unexplained death halfway through the film pushes Pica to finish her art project.
The pressures of living with and supporting a benign but negligent mother and her school project’s deadline eventually get to Pica, who becomes deathly ill until Tobi nurses her back to health. She completes her project by building sculptures on the abandoned lot where Malik was killed. They are shrines to the men in her pictures, many of whom are already dead.
Pic’s weakest link is a half-baked serial-killer subplot. It’s as if the film imagines that the devastation of young black men in America is not due to drugs, gangs or other societal ills, but rather is the work of a David Berkowitz–type madman.
One of the film’s most poignant scenes — when Pica’s mother (Channel Schafer) nonchalantly dances while her sick daughter convulses in pain in her bedroom — seems tossed aside so Tobi and Pica can face down the Westside Slasher.
While the film’s plot may be contrived, its characters feel real, and, overall, Smith elicits good work from her cast. Smith gives an understated performance as Pica, a character who has built walls around her emotions so she can cope with the hardships of life. As Tobi, the gangsta wannabe, Barnett gives the film a badly needed comic element. The two women’s scenes together are the most deeply felt parts of the film.
Considering that pic looks like it was shot on peanuts, tech credits are quite good. Lenser Andrew Black’s expressive hand-held camerawork combines with the colorful sets of Gabrielle Stover and Richard Bracho to give the film a vibrant sense of place. The piano-and-guitar score is a bit sappy at times, but adds an emotional richness to the proceedings.