Star Maps
directed by Miguel Arteta
(20th Century Fox, 1997)

Carlos dreams of signing autographs, but when he awakes, he's just another passenger on the bus to Los Angeles.

Fortunately, he has a job waiting for him in L.A. Unfortunately, it's not the one he wants: it's with his father, Pepe, the middle manager of a male prostitution ring.

Like the other young Mexican or Mexican-American youths who work for Pepe (Efrain Figueroa), Carlos (Douglas Spain) pretends to sell star maps -- maps that show the location of movie stars' homes -- on street corners. But unlike the others, he dreams of better things: a career in TV or movies.

His mother (Martha Velez), who's recovering from a mental breakdown, dreams, too. But she dreams when she's awake. And his sister, Maria (Lysa Flores), dreams of living a normal life -- no small fantasy given the family dynamic.

The first effort of writer-director Miguel Arteta, Star Maps is an offbeat film, a look at the dark underbelly of one of America's brightest cities, a place where the houses are pretty but the scene is not.

Pepe is easily the ugliest piece of the human landscape, a no-nonsense businessman who orders his mistress, Letta (Annette Murphy), to keep his son on the streets and out of the studios. Yet it's Pepe who gives Carlos the break he longs for, sending him a budding soap star named Jennifer (Kandeyce Jorden) for a client.

Carlos handles Jennifer's affairs all too well, and it isn't long before Jennifer demands that Carlos be written into the script. The writers' suggestions for him are nothing short of hilarious, but the satire is dead serious.

Star Maps was nominated for a whole host of Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Debut Performance for Flores and Spain; Best First Screenplay for Arteta; Best Supporting Male for Figueroa; and Best First Feature for Arteta and Matthew Greenfield, who produced it.

It's a brutal film, but it has moments of transcendent tenderness, especially between Maria and her mother. And it's a violent film, though much of the violence is hidden beneath the film's polished surface.

Mostly, however, it's a brooding film, as Carlos gets caught up in a game of "Who Do You Trust," and comes to the realization that exploitation is exploitation, regardless of the source.

That dual emphasis on theme and character make Star Maps an unusual offering in Hollywood, the very city where it's set. But it's a good one, full of odd bits and memorable dialog. And Letta's impromptu training seminar for Carlos is one hysterical jaw dropper.

With its ensemble cast, quick leaps from location to location and offbeat allusions (Maria has ongoing conversations with the late legendary Mexican film star Cantinflas), Star Maps can be a challenge to follow, especially in the early scenes.

But as the tension between Carlos and Pepe escalates into full-scale father-and-son combat, Arteta hits home with amazing accuracy. You'll want to be there when he arrives.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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