Allison Anders was America’s indie darling for about 5 minutes in the 90’s with her Sundance hit Gas Food Lodging, which was a slick and glossy film with a weak script but an indie attitude that captured people’s excitement. It made enough buzz to earn her a spot on the box-office bomb Four Rooms, the indie anthology film with four stories by four up-and-coming filmmakers (two made it big: Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. The other two, not so much.)
But the best thing she ever made was the overlooked, but legitimately fresh Mi Vida Loca, covering the lives of young Latinos and Latinas growing up in LA’s Echo Park. Starring unknown actors and non-actors (some from actual Echo Park gangs,) the film is a collection of short tales from different perspectives, but mostly centered around two best friends with the same babydaddy. (Cameos by then-unknowns Salma Hayek and Danny Trejo are fun surprises, too.) Though the dialogue (not Anders’ strong suit) can be a bit theatrical, Mi Vida Loca captures a slice of the U.S. of A. that rarely gets exposure, especially in 1993: Latino Street Culture.
Like Boyz n the Hood, Mi Vida Loca is about life in the hood- the gangs, the feuds, the senseless deaths that turn way too many kids into orphans. But it’s the little details that make it work- the actors live and breathe their fictional counterparts, and the way the relate to each other in this Mexican-American subculture rings true. Up until this point, Hollywood had never managed (and rarely bothered) to capture this side of American life. Though guys are definitely protagonists at times, Anders makes it clear that this film is about the women. While the boys are playing macho and getting themselves into fights they won’t walk away from, it’s the women that have to deal with the aftermath, the cleanup, the children left behind. Anders doesn’t romanticize her women- they make plenty of dumb decisions throughout the movie- but she loves them, and holds them up as the real-life heroes that they are.
Anders may be an independent filmmaker, but her style is all Hollywood- glossy, high production values, sweeping dolly shots, dramatic stories. The indie subversiveness comes in the subject matter she chooses, not in the style she applies to her work. With Mi Vida Loca, Anders’ approach hits all the right notes, basically telling the world that these kids are as deserving of a mainstream movie as anyone. Today, a Latino film written and directed by a White woman would be lambasted by the press for anti-colonial reasons, but back then, it was praiseworthy. Regardless on where your cultural politics lie, Anders’ achievement- giving a voice to people rarely afforded one in our society- still works today, and it works heart-on-sleeve beautifully.
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