It wouldn’t be unfair to observe that plenty of indie films today seem more concerned with the representative modes of filmmaking and storytelling than anything singularly novel, imaginative, or personal. This “aesthetic” approach can still muster some force in its efforts to meet the minimum requirements of exhibiting social awareness — especially when it focuses on the lives of marginalized outsiders and their specific day-to-day hardships — by tackling (ticking?) some (or occasionally “all”) checklist of hot topicality, but the considerable risk is that through the neglect any distinctive artistic sensitivity these low-key indie dramas nosedive into a vicious cycle of repetitiveness and predictability. And to a certain degree, this can be said to be the case with Nicola Peltz Beckham’s debut directorial feature, Lola, which depicts the life of its titular 19-year-old protagonist Lola James (portrayed by Peltz Beckham herself) who lives a seemingly mundane existence in the L.A. suburbs.
Lola’s unalterable 24/7 routines oscillate back and forth between her dysfunctional domestic life — which includes sensitive, gender-nonconforming little brother Arlo (Luke David Blumm), who struggles with his sexual identity; alcoholic, passive-aggressive, and God-fearing zealot mother Mona (Virginia Madsen); and good-for-nothing stepfather, Trick (Trevor Long) — her day job at a local drugstore with a small group of friends — most notably, her supportive bestie Babina (Raven Goodwin) and immature and irresponsible boyfriend Malachi (Richie Merritt) — and as a pole-dancing showgirl in the evenings. Given this setup, its perhaps easy for viewers to expect a bit of histrionics: indeed, Lola takes drugs to escape her deepest psychological wounds, and her main survival aim seems to hinge on protecting her beloved brother by saving enough money to send him to an art camp, away from their abusive home. From here, her circumstance merely worsens, as she gradually loses her day job after stealing some goods, is raped by her stepdad, realizes her unexpected pregnancy, becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the frequent toxicity of her sex industry employment. And this all leads to Lola’s embarking on a post-traumatic, self-actualizing journey after Arlo dies in a tragic car accident while trying to run away from home.
Which is all to say, there’s nothing really surprising or new to be found in Lola’s poorly scripted and stereotypically melodramatic story, which is mostly realized as typical arrangements of manufactured intensity and overt sentiment-baiting — that is, other than the fact that Peltz Beckham, thankfully, never victimizes her character and offers a generous survey of the title character’s efforts for a better future. Yes, the material is inescapable familiar, but the director-star exhibits some surprisingly bold and daring choices with both character and visual design, or at the very least, shows a willingness to push for an artistry beyond what one would expect from this kind of miserabilist material. Despite the frequent music video-adjacent choices — plenty of slo-mo, a lot of saturated red, pink, and purple lighting during the night-set sequences — there’s actually balance here with the way Peltz Beckham handles the film’s overall visual character; the aesthetic influence of Euphoria is undeniable, but it’s leveraged to help shape Lola’s world as a liminal space between raw realism and hyper-stylization, all neon brutality vs. tender pastel lyricism. Put differently, the director’s collaboration with DP Madeline Leach results in a design not unlike a mix between Nan Goldin and William Eggleston’s photography, a series of (sometimes scattershot) snapshots of intimate suburban struggle framed within the grander, darker landscapes of modern-day Americana. If Peltz Beckham’s Lola (both film and character) manages to captivate viewers despite its notably lackluster material and half-baked narrative deck-stacking, it’s on the strength of the movie’s ability to survey and stylishly reflect its essential vulgar beauty.
DIRECTOR: Nicola Peltz Beckham; CAST: Nicola Peltz Beckham, Virginia Madsen, Luke David Blumm, Will Peltz; DISTRIBUTOR: Vertical; IN THEATERS: February 9; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 24 min.