Abandoning the debilitating hunt for Hollywood funding, Alexandre Rockwell gleefully returns to his freeform indie roots in “Little Feet.” Loading a 16mm camera with black-and-white “short ends,” he casts his two young kids as leads and sends them roaming little-shown byways of Los Angeles in search of a replacement for their goldfish’s dead mate. With nods to the cinematic anarchy of John Cassavetes and Jean Vigo, and a screenplay by Rockwell and his 7-year-old daughter, Lana, “Feet” plunges directly into the wildly unpredictable logic of childhood. Slated for exclusive Vimeo release in March, this hourlong gem promises to have a long artistic afterlife.
No grownups intrude upon the children’s self-contained universe. Their father (played by Alexandre Rockwell himself) comes home at night, still clad in the panda costume he wears at work, only to fall into an exhausted drunken sleep, whereupon 7-year-old Lana (Lana Rockwell) solemnly tucks him in with a kiss. He’s gone before the kids awaken, two dollar bills the only sign of his passing. Their mother has apparently died recently, leaving 4-year-old Nico (Nico Rockwell) to imagine her presence in a falling feather or maybe in the water at the bottom of the bathtub. Lana improvises the various tasks that fall upon her as de facto lady of the house, ironing bread to make sandwiches or illustrating whispered bedtime stories for Nico with flashlight-cast shadow shapes.
Having missed the schoolbus while in the process of burying their dead goldfish, the siblings, along with Nene (Rene Cuante-Bautista), a chunky neighbor kid, head out to the L.A. River to find a companion for their surviving fish, Curly. Riding in an abandoned grocery cart pulled by a dog following a sausage suspended on a stick (shades of “Our Gang” and countless silent-movie precedents), Nico surveys the city through rolled-up paper binoculars, while Lana and Nene plot their course by checking Nene’s compass reading against the fish’s position. The riverbed proving dry, the procession continues on to the sea, where they are given aid and instructions by a magic-performing street kid named Olinga.
Here, as in his 1992 breakthrough feature, “In the Soup,” Rockwell conveys his characters’ peculiar suppositions and perceptions using a variety of cinematic approaches, many recalling the untrammeled exuberance of early cinema. A rapid montage of the picaresque threesome trying on various animal masks is jauntily scored to one of the film’s many eclectic novelty songs. A handheld camera intercepts a nude Nico as he races through the apartment, shrieking happily, pursued by Lana; the ensuing fierce, laughing pillow fight produces a blizzard of plumes in homage to Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct.” But the moment Lana realizes with dismay that she is responsible for cleaning up the feathery explosion belongs entirely to Rockwell’s lament for truncated childhood.
In the film’s final underwater imagery by the sea, the children’s little feet are glimpsed amid swirling seaweed and film-stock disintegration in the watery medium where, Nico firmly believes, the living can communicate with the dead.