Fantasia first look: Lowlife

Criss-crossing narratives abound in this bombastic caper of the marginalised, the manipulated and the moronic

A man in a luchador’s red mask (Ricardo Adam Zarate) sits in medium shot, staring right into the camera, telling his tale in Spanish. He is the latest inheritor of the title El Monstruo, from a long patriarchal line of near mythic Mexican champions of the people. Abandoned to the slums as a child and diminutive compared to his gigantic ancestors, he compensates for his relative smallness with an uncontrollable anger: “Rage for my upbringing. Rage for my size. Rage for the absence of my father.”

The none-too-smart El Monstruo fancies himself a hero, but in fact he is addressing his story to a 15-year-old girl, while he waits to collect a debt from her father for his boss – and father substitute – Teddy ‘Bear’ Haynes (Mark Burnham), a local pimp of abducted Mexican children and illegal organ trafficker. Despite his fierce loyalty to ‘Jefe Teddy’, and his determination to have a son by Teddy’s adopted daughter and ex-child-prostitute Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), El Monstruo is beginning to wonder whether he is really working for the cause of justice that is his legacy, and indeed offering the right kind of rĂ´le model for the next little El Monstruo.

Whenever El Monstruo enters one of his Hulk-like rages, he blacks out, awakening later to survey the bloody carnage that he has caused. Such ellipses also mark the criss-crossing narrative of of Ryan Prows’ Lowlife, in which disparate headed chapters (‘Monsters’, ‘Fiends’, ‘Thugs’, ‘Criminals’) overlap and dovetail in unexpected ways, eventually bringing all the characters together into a violent clash of values. The other principal players include: motel manager Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), seeking a kidney for her ailing alcoholic husband and a connection with her long lost daughter; embezzling accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) desperate to sever ties with Teddy; and Keith’s former gang-banging buddy Randy (Jon Oswald), fresh out of jail with a swastika prominently tattooed across his face despite not being remotely racist.

Lowlife is a Tarantino-esque caper, ruled by coincidence and/or providence, and far funnier than its grimly horrific prologue (in which a shanghaied Mexican woman is murdered and surgically eviscerated for her body parts) might suggest. Both the bombastic, surreal tone and the demimonde setting recall J. Michael Muro’s absurdist underclass epic Street Trash (1987), while this collection of illegal migrants, ex cons, addicts, fantasists and vile villains are not only archetypes of exploitation cinema, but also embody and dramatise very different kinds of real-world exploitation. For in this story where every child loses their father, and people are repeatedly betrayed by their heroes, there is more than one kind of monstrous legacy. With a feature debut as brash and bold as this, Prows is definitely a talent to watch.

Lowlife was seen and reviewed at Fantasia International Film Festival. For more information, visit the website.