"I'm so exhausted all the time... Can't ask my mom for help... You wanna split some nachos?... So I spent my whole friggin' day at Medicaid... Drink up, ladies -- only 15 minutes left of happy hour!"
Five irresponsible late-twentysomething mommies meet at an El Cheapo Mexican restaurant to splurge on $2 Margaritas. What better way to hang on to their last vestige of rebellious slacker spirit? They drink to each other's health or bitch about the state of affairs while their two-year-old babies crawl around under the table having tea parties. It's pretty goddamned cute without being precious or sentimental.
Living in the artsy section of Brooklyn with seven roommates, sharp-witted freelance illustrator Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins), sporting a nasty scar on her cheek, is somehow just scraping by. Even if the kid is adorable, it's no picnic taking care of her Little Z (long-haired Jonah Leland). Our surly heroine is continually forced to deal with the system without the benefit of help from her affable screw-up of a boyfriend, Max (Larry Fessenden, Habit). This couple is rough around the edges, but both care for the baby and still share feelings for each other even if the electric spell of first love is gone. Sure, he loves me -- he just can't stand to look at my face.
An assured directorial debut by Ilya Chaiken, Margarita Happy Hour won critical accolades at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, receiving the catchy label of "Sex in the City for the downtown crowd." I guess that's someone's way of saying Margarita centers on dealing with the pressures of raising a baby in the starving artist milieu.
Comparing this authentic, lived-in low budget feature to a glossy TV show is something of a misnomer -- Chaiken's inventive directorial approach really harks back to 70s filmmakers like Robert Altman or Hal Ashby. That cinematic heyday was a time when "slice of life" actually meant empathetic, unsentimental warts 'n' all sketches of everyday life. It's great to see new directors as diverse as Aiyana Elliott (The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack), Jonathan Nossiter (Signs & Wonders), and Chaiken reclaiming that cinematic spirit.
The casting couldn't be better. As Zelda, Hutchins is as sharp as a whip with charisma to spare. Whether sparring with her boyfriend or telling a bedtime story to Little Z, she presents a character who is wholly authentic and believable. She's got her good days, she's got her bad days, she can be a real bitch sometimes (and if you went out with Max, you would too!) In the same way Chaiken has found lived-in urban locations, cramped apartments and rickety stairs, she's also found an actress who completely fits into the environment of her film.
There are strong supporting turns from Fessenden as the ne'er do well boyfriend, investing the role with surprising warmth and complexity, and Holly Ramos as Zelda's long suffering buddy, Natali, just out of rehab, all sad eyes and gimlet smiles. Her delicate, careworn performance defies junkie stereotypes.
Zelda's flashbacks are seamlessly incorporated into the present day, detailing happier times when she picked up Max in a bar ("I hope you write better than you play pool,") or walked the streets of Manhattan with Natali in search of par-tayy central. Hedonism is fun, kids. You can only evade mature decisions for so long, though. Chaiken gives her heroine a handful of tough decisions, leading to some dramatic contrivances that seem a bit heavy handed in this otherwise naturalistic, perceptive scenario.
These faults are easily forgiven, even forgotten, when Chaiken unveils her spacious, clearly motivated open ending. Margarita Happy Hour is that rarity in movies -- as though the narrative has begun long before the opening reel and will continue after the closing credits end. A full world has been presented onscreen, not some series of carefully structured plot points building to a pat resolution. Let's be honest, how many times do you watch a movie feeling like the characters actually had lives outside of the screenplay?
It'd be a shame not to mention at least one of the character details that Chaiken literally throws away during the 98 minute running time. The scene has little to do with the plot, but adds to the cohesiveness of Margarita's world: Larry Fessenden is walking down the street with a cuppa coffee, not a care in the world. He stops to light a cigarette, and one of those obnoxious bike messengers sideswipes him. "MY FUCKIN' COFFEE!" It goes flying. Not leaving well enough alone, the messenger rides back and forth, taunting him. Ha ha.
Fessenden eventually gets sick of it and lives out every urbanite's fantasy: he knocks the biker's punk ass out. Let's just chalk it up as another classic New York moment in a movie jam-packed with them.
Zelda in NY.