A true discovery out of the genre-loving Fantasia International Film Festival is their world premiere Lowlife, the bold feature debut of director Ryan Prows. Interweaving tales of a legacy-obsessed luchador, a pregnant recovering junkie, a corrupt ICE agent, a desperate hotel owner, a not-so-dynamic duo of kidnappers, and a organ-harvesting pimp, the film winds an complicated and compelling narrative with a shrewd empathy and darkly comic twist.
A shocking opening establishes the greasy-haired and mustachioed Teddy Bear (Mark Burnham) as a ruthless gangster who captures illegal immigrants, and either forces them into prostitution, or butchers them to sell their organs on the black market. It’s a grim beginning, that then cuts away to something jarringly bizarre.
The first chapter, “Monsters,” begins with a steely close-up of the El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a luchador in a baby-blue Western suit monologuing about his family’s legacy of churning out wrestlers who are heroes to the people. He laments that he is small, and a disappointment to the legacy. But oh, how he dreams to do right by his ancestors. But who is he talking to? Cut to a wide shot, and revealed is a bored Mexican girl, draped in a bubbly pink Quinceañera dress, her arms crossed, her face annoyed. This ludicrous contrast is the first hint of Lowlife’s deeply bizarre brand of humor.
El Monstruo will smash about back alleys, backyards, and phone booths, unfurling an absurd beginning to a potential redemption arc. But abruptly, we leave him to enter “Fiends,” an earnestly dramatic chapter that follows an alcoholic turned sober hotel owner (Nicki Micheaux), who is dealing with Teddy to get a crucial operation for her ailing (and still drinking) mate. Her story is tragic, spiked with bitterness and bad decisions, but a fragile ray of hope shimmers when her story abruptly collides with El Monstruo. As the two join forces, Lowlife leaps to “Thugs,” which is its most lively and insanely outlandish section.
Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and Randy (Jon Oswald) were once dumb law-breaking kids together. But one bad brush with the law landed the latter in jail, and sent the other on a mostly legit route. When Keith goes to pick-up Randy on his release from an 11-year stretch in prison, he’s a seemingly upstanding family man with a baby seat in the back seat of his responsible car, a cake in his arms, and cardigan over his shoulders. On the other hand, Randy sidles out spouting street slang like “homey,” drowning in an oversized warm-up suit in a vibrant blue, and sporting a massive swastika tattoo across the middle of his face. It’s an odd couple so odd, the audience was practically giddy to see them take on “one last job” that’ll lead to a spectacular and brutal finale where all threads collide.
The tone for each section shifts dramatically. We go from abject horror of organ harvesting to s surreal luchador tale to ardent melodrama to a Tarantinoesque crime comedy about too fools in way over their heads. It’s a disorienting experience, and a risky experiment. But by the time you get to Randy lecturing Keith that it’s prejudiced to judge him by his swastika tattoo, Lowlife steps up to something strangely special. Here, the team of screenwriters takes swings at tone-deaf PC culture with a white dude who argues the color on his skin shouldn’t matter, declaring, “Not cool calling me a Nazi. You don’t know my struggle.” It’s a special mix of outrageousness and obliviousness that Lowlife plays for laughs, and it pays off with big ones.
As these deeply flawed figures crash into each other’s lives, sparks fly along with one-liners, all gunning to a showdown with the big bad Teddy. And after some unwieldy turns and awkward tone shifts, Lowlife sticks the landing with a finale that is unnerving, satisfying, and suitably absurd.