A colossal achievement in low-budget ingenuity and skill, Lowlife marks the arrival of a major new filmmaking talent in director Ryan Prows. Despite flashes of pop culture eccentricity and extreme violence, Prows breaks free of his Tarantino-esque trappings to deliver a beautifully structured, wonderfully acted and darkly comic thriller tinged with that most rare of animals: heart.
This sincerity comes from a place of true affection for the variety of misfits that populate the pulpy, grime-flecked story. There’s former junkie Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), a motel owner desperate to find a replacement kidney for her cripplingly alcoholic husband. There’s Keith (Shaye Ogbonna), a family man accountant who may or may not have embezzled from the psychotic pimp/criminal Teddy (Mark Burnham). There’s Randy (Jon Oswald), the loyal and surprisingly sensitive ex-con with an unfortunate facial tattoo. There’s Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), the very pregnant potential kidney donor, who also happens to be married to the film’s most memorable character; El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a disgraced, violent luchadore, dedicated to finding an heir to carry on his father’s legacy.
Their stories interconnect in startling, ingenious ways, with portions often replaying from a different character’s point of view. The intricate structure will inevitably remind you of Pulp Fiction, though the mixed up chronology is much more carefully designed here, leaving one character’s story on a breathless cliffhanger before another picks up on the thread a little later. The various arcs all inevitably come together in a bloodbath that results in shaky redemption for some, and comeuppance for others.
Performances are universally excellent, but Micheaux brings real depth and sensitivity to Crystal, who spends much of the film leaping through a variety of intense, overwhelming emotions. Jon Oswald has most of the film’s best lines, but his thuggish character displays real dimension and sensitivity, despite displaying a very visible swastika on his face. Best of all is Zarate’s El Monstruo, a character that could easily have sabotaged Prows’ attempts at wringing emotion from these flawed characters, but instead becomes the lynchpin of the entire project. Displaying a unique combination of sensitivity and unchecked rage, his dapper, masked character is a treat, and walks the line between ridiculous and dignified perfectly.
Filmed on sometimes shaky handheld through a variety of real life southern California locations, Lowlife is occasionally reminiscent of, of all things, Sean Baker’s incredible Tangerine, and it shares that film’s appreciation, if not admiration, for the dingy locations, colorful characters and shifting morality of Los Angeles. The mix of vérité filmmaking, eccentric players and perfectly dilapidated neighbourhoods captures an authenticity born from familiarity.
Fiercely original, Lowlife is a brash, brutal firecracker refreshingly free of aloofness while crackling with energy, proving that those on the bottom rungs are still capable of atonement, and that their redemption can be forged in both human affection and in blood. See it as soon as you can.