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The Better Life Doesn't Get Much Worse Than 'Star Maps.'

By Stacey Richter

AUGUST 11, 1997:  STAR MAPS IS the first film from this year's Sundance Festival to open in Tucson, and it has all the energy and quirky moments that make smaller, independent films a welcome break from the mind-numbing action of big-budget summer flicks. This debut feature from writer/director Miguel Arteta is a smart, intense family drama laced with surrealism and a gritty sense of the inequalities of race and class in Hollywood.

At the beginning of Star Maps, we see a handsome teenage Hispanic kid riding a bus, trying to ignore the fawning attention of the other passengers: He's famous, they want his autograph, and it's clear that they love him. Then, abruptly, the fans disappear and reality sets in: Carlos (Douglas Spain) is ignored and alone, having just arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico. He's come to join his family, an odd, twisted affiliation headed by Pepe (Efrain Figueroa)--a sociopathic, manipulative pimp, actually.

Pepe is a very bad man. Star Maps is one of those movies that makes perfect sense once you swallow one difficult-to-believe fact; in this case, the fact that Pepe would put his son to work as a prostitute (and none of his other children). Pepe runs a prostitution ring using street kids who sell maps to the homes of the stars between tricks. The kids are mostly minorities; their bleak, impoverished lives stand in stark contrast to the mansions on their maps. Pepe sends Carlos to hustle the street corners along with the other kids. Carlos, though, has bigger plans: He pathetically announces to his father that he's going to act. He's hell-bent on being one of those stars himself.

Meanwhile, Pepe's malevolent influence has corroded the rest of the family: Carlos' mother has suffered a mental breakdown and his brother Juancito is disturbed as well; only his sweet, long-suffering sister Maria seems fully human. The family scenes in this movie are really creepy. Arteta gives us a nightmare vision of family and sexuality where all connections between people eventually boil down to a price tag, and love is just another commodity. It's no wonder Carlos retreats into a fantasy world where everyone adores him.

Into this tense configuration waltzes Jennifer (Kandeyce Jensen), a laquered soap opera star who "just wants a poor Mexican boy to fuck." She hires Carlos to do just that and takes a particular liking to him. She promises to get him a bit part on her soap, Carmel County--a gesture for which she expects to be endlessly congratulated. Some of the best parts of Star Maps grow out of the contrast between Jennifer's slick, insulated world and Carlos' tense, difficult existence. When she brings him to her house for the first time, the camera slowly pans past an Hispanic gardener brandishing a leaf blower; Carlos looks uncomfortable, but Jennifer doesn't even register his presence as human.

Before long, Jennifer has Carlos wrapped around her little finger. His desire to get a big break is so great that he'll do anything to keep the small, walk-on part she's promised him. All the while Carlos wanders in and out of reality, the dream life he longs for and the exploitative life he's stuck in. Because of this, after a while the inconsistencies in Star Maps become easier to accept; they begin to seem less literal and veer towards allegorical. Carlos is a creature utterly used, both by his family and by the white lady who promises to help him but really only sees him as a sex object. His story becomes a vision of what it means to be a poor immigrant in the United States, to be so without power and status as to be invisible as a person. Even his own father is against him, claiming that Carlos must be taught resignation, as he was, in order to "become a man."

Star Maps was shot on a small budget, and it occasionally shows. Though some of the acting is surprisingly good (Vincent Chandler as the deranged brother Juancito is especially wonderful), a few of the others seem stiff, reciting their lines in an annoying, sing-song manner. Unfortunately Douglas Spain, as our hero Carlos, can be especially wooden. One wishes the filmmakers had enough time or money to get more consistent performances. Still, Star Maps is an ambitious debut, surprising and full of small pleasures, and well worth seeing.

Star Maps opens Friday, August 8, at Century Park 16 (620-0750) cinema.

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