What’s lacking in technique in made up for in honesty in “After Freedom,” a heartfelt semi-autobiographical feature from L.A.-based Armenian filmmaker Vahe Babaian. Urgently expressing the cultural dislocations and conflicting emotional demands on the young adult offspring of Old World immigrants, distinctively flavored pic has an uncertain commercial future outside of ethnic pockets, but will play well at indie and cultural diversity-minded fests as well as on homevid down the line. Film was the audience award winner at the recent Method Fest in Pasadena, just east of Glendale, where yarn is set.
Protag Michael (Mic Tomasi) looks to have been at a life crossroads for a long time: Stuck in a lowly stockroom job at a local supermarket, he keeps putting off his commitment-ready g.f. Ana (Sophie Chahinan) with the excuse that he must look after his aging widower dad, Leon (Greg Satamian), who sacrificed everything to bring the family to America. Michael spends way too much time hanging around with the boys, a bunch of small-time crooks led by hot-headed Avo (Shant Bejanian).
Michael’s stasis becomes dramatically aggravating at times, especially with regard to Ana, who has far too much on the ball to wait for him to get it together. At the same time, Michael would seem to have too much sense to be influenced by Avo, whose natural macho impulses look to have been inflated by too many viewings of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.”
In his portraiture of neighborhood guys acting big but going nowhere, Babaian, like so many others, clearly has been influenced by the modern gods of Italian-American cinema; pic’s longest set piece is a big Armenian wedding at which the guys slip in and out to pursue various little scams. But “After Freedom” is a walk on the mild side where wayward behavior is concerned. Avo apart, the characters here are above all preoccupied with doing the right thing where their families are concerned. Michael feels nothing will ever be enough to repay his father for his lifetime of struggle, while buddy Mato (Ioannis Bogris) takes severe risks trying to help his older brother slip into the country.
Some of the dramatic confrontations, particularly those between Michael and Ana, are too on-the-nose to play well, and Babaian’s direction can look clumsy when called upon to convey too much physical action. But compensating for the technical faults is the writer-director’s unmistakable and undiluted need to express the issues he feels are at the heart of his community. Focus upon an all-Armenian cast of characters operating within the context of a blandly all-American suburb sets off unusual cultural frissons, and the dramatic urgency is happily unencumbered by an artificial sense of desperation.
Thesping by combo of experienced actors and non-pros is decent, although Bejanian’s ability to project a sense of thuggery that deftly walks the line between the comic and the genuinely threatening seems ready for primetime. Tech contributions are OK.