(director/editor/writer: Ilya Chaiken; cinematographer: Gordon Chou; editor: Meg Reticker; music: Max Lichenstein; cast: Eleanor Hutchins (Zelda), Larry Fessenden (Max), Will Keenan (Lester), Michael Buscemi (Pornographer), Holly Ramos (Natali), Jonah Leland (Little Z), Macha Ross (Sofia), Barbara Sicuranza (Graziella), Amanda Vogel (Raquel), Kristin Dispaltro (Marie); Runtime: 98; Little Z Productions; 2001)
“A woman’s pic directed with resonance by Ilya Chaiken.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A woman’s pic directed with resonance by Ilya Chaiken. Its purpose is relating the life experiences of the director with her alter ego on film, a twentysomething freelance illustrator unwed mom, Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins). She has a 2-year-old named Little Z. The heart of the film revolves around Zelda’s relationship with the Margarita Single Moms group consisting of Graziella (Barbara Sicuranza), Raquel (Amanda Vogel), Sofia (Macha Ross), and Marie (Kristen Dispaltro), who meet during the local bar’s Happy Hour for half-priced margaritas to relax from being stressed-out. Also, examined is Zelda’ stifling relationship with her shiftless would-be writer live-in boyfriend Max (Larry Fessenden-indie director). Max is someone she once loved and now the relationship is touch and go, with only memories of the past holding it together. It’s a gloomy melodrama about the group’s behavior; it’s influenced by the kind of work Robert Altman did in the 1970s with films such as Nashville.

Zelda and Max live with 7 others in a crammed communal Brooklyn loft consisting of druggies, hipsters, rock musicians, and assorted artists, as they all live close to the edge on borderline poverty levels. Zelda’s best friend and first love is Natali (Holly Ramos), just released from drug rehab and having a tough time adjusting to life without her fix. She moves into the loft and has to ward off the advances of Max and the attempts of a former friend Lester who seeks to get her high and into the sack.

Zelda is a real catch for any guy and in flashback we see how Max charmed her by playing pool with her in the neighborhood bar and getting into her head. Natali says that Iggy Pop once wanted to bang her, but she rejected him. She’s considered a queen among her friends, but whose life is getting away from her ever since living with the father of her child and trying to make a go of it. She’s forced to illustrate porno-magazines to make some bread, and is conflicted that her hipster scene is no longer hip and her life is becoming too heavy as she’s now in her late twenties and sees things differently from a few years ago. Her congested Brooklyn neighborhood where crime is rampant seems like a dead-end place to raise kids, and she yearns for more space and better conditions to raise a family. Her beautiful face is marred by a scar she received, that Max tells others she got on the street.

The dramatic film moment comes as her Happy Hour girlfriends have decided to move to the country to live in a communal house, hoping to escape from all the bad vibes. There’s a tragic event in her loft that gives Zelda the reason to join her girlfriends, as she instantly decides to leave her old life behind for the country lifestyle.

A lot of time is spent railing against how cold and unfair the system is, how piggish men are who just want them for sex and then abandon them, and how life is a dream that must be lived wherever one is. Zelda’s worried that she lost her purpose in life and is no longer meeting her potential to be herself, as she leaves the volatile Max because he can’t be a more responsible father. She’s not only escaping the horrors of urban life, but breaking her cycle by just this movement alone. This freedom is what gives her renewed hope. The lugubrious tone of the film ends on that one upbeat note.

This is a realistic and gritty first-feature for the director, though the film had too many lags in the story to hold one’s interest throughout and was too chatty in spots to be a cinematic delight. But the positives outweigh the flaws as Eleanor Hutchins brings a bright face onscreen, whose fight for survival is moving. In contrast Holly Ramos, as the vulnerable friend who might be too lost to save, offers up a tender performance as the one who can’t be reached. It’s a hard-hitting indie film that brings a measure of truth to a certain group of women caught in a vicious cycle, and it realistically catches the flavor of the urban hipster lifestyle. This theme is rarely accomplished as successfully in mainstream films.

Margarita Happy Hour (2001)