Nadeem Soumah's "Searching for Angels" premiered at the Reel World Film Festival in Toronto on April 14th. The sold out show was the first public screening of the much anticipated feature starring Veronika London and Vivica A. Fox, and if there's any justice it won't be long before it's available in wide release. It would be unfortunate for a film this good not to be seen.
"Searching for Angels" tells the story of Angel (Veronica London), a drug addicted prostitute who, having suffered some undisclosed head trauma, has completely lost her memory and has to put the pieces of her sordid life back together. Along the way she encounters Nurse Carter (Vivica A. Fox), whose kindness becomes the only thing Angel has to hold onto. Carter's reluctant friendship with Angel provides an interesting subtext, with the two characters' lives intertwined through the vehicle of Carter's estranged daughter (whom we never explicitly meet in the film).
Comparisons are often the order of the day for film reviews, and Veronika London has been hailed as the "Megan Fox of Hollywood North" (for her looks). Her performance in "Searching for Angels" has drawn similar comparisons to Angelina Jolie in "Gia." In my opinion both comparisons are unfair, if only because the former is based almost exclusively on image, while the latter is only due to the subject matter. Angel and Gia were both addicted to heroin, and both played by hot brunettes. But the comparison fails at that point -- on these criteria, one could compare Jolie to Gary Oldman in "Sid and Nancy."
Some have said that it's because, like Jolie, London is "edgy." Nobody knows what this means though, and to say that the film itself is "edgy" is an absurd understatement. In my opinion, I think London's delivery overall was more convincing. She's good...damn good. And if this role doesn't propel her into more serious widespread film work, there's something seriously wrong with the people who cast movies. She's a fantastic model, no doubts there. But she's an outstanding actress, and she should be known for this craft first and foremost.
Director Nadeem Soumah, who is best known for his work in music videos, has taken a fairly common street story and turned it substantially human. Angel, a high-achieving college student, begins to snap under the pressure of caring for her disabled father. Like most good girls gone bad, she takes to evenings of drinking and drugs. As her background legend evolves, we see her descend into a world that pulls her deeper and deeper into addiction through the machinations of Kemo (played by Alberto Tihan), who later becomes her pimp. Kemo's strings, meanwhile, are being pulled by the arch-villain Huntley (Craig Porritt), for purposes which I won't spoil here.
The genius of Soumah's script is that the foreground story of Angel's quest to find out who she is is both juxtaposed with and superimposed on her back story leading up to the attack that landed her in the hospital and stole her memory. We're taken on a journey that fully engrosses the viewer in the life of the main character from all angles. She's no longer just a whore whose unfortunate problem of getting her memory back plays out like a bad television episode. There's an essay here in how quickly a life can spiral out of control, and Angel's character moves from unfortunate protagonist to pitiable victim so fast you almost can't help wanting to help her -- the very predicament Nurse Carter finds herself in.
While there are admirable performances turned in by some of the supporting cast -- notably Brian Mifsud as Johnny, and John Sherritt as Angel's father -- the four principal characters form a curious cast of archetypes. While the two characters out front (Angel and Kemo) sometimes cross the court between good and bad, both are grounded on their respective sides by superior characters fully formed on opposite ends of that spectrum. If comparisons are to be drawn, I have to be very fair in stating that in delivering his monstrous Huntley character, Craig Porritt really did an exceptional job as the precise negative of Vivica Fox's caring and matronly Carter. In fact, these two are the only "pure" characters in the film in terms of moral compass, and even then we find out that Carter's daughter is a runaway prostitute, and Huntley is a model father and husband...at least while he's at home.
Yet the good guy/bad guy motif is turned on its head between Kemo and Angel. Sure, Kemo's a dirtbag, but his charm and humour (and he is the funniest character in the film) make it hard to not buy whatever line the guy sells you. He saves the day, but you're never quite sure if it's an act of redemption or just covering his own ass.
Angel, meanwhile, doesn't make the move you'd expect. You'd expect her to go on a take-no-prisoners rampage. You'd expect her to at least cleverly devise some sort of elaborate plot to destroy her attacker and bring the hand of justice down. She gives you the impression that at any moment she's capable of cutting down anyone in her path to get at the truth. But she doesn't. Instead, all she wants is to know who she is and what happened to her. Even when she gets close, the withdrawal symptoms of her addiction kick the crap out of her, and when she eventually does learn the truth she's victimized again. There's no super hero in this story. There's no legendary retribution. Evil isn't punished; it's merely taken down a peg by one of its own team members.
And therein lies the exquisite simplicity and beauty of this story: it's real. It's tragic and horrific and terrible, but it's real, and there's no fairy tale ending (well, a bit of one, but not so tidy that you feel jilted). You can't walk away from this story feeling completely good about the way things played out.
The palette of this "Searching for Angels" is brilliantly filmed. There's nothing "Canadian-" or "indie-" feeling about it. It's dark, but crisp. You can see with disturbing clarity all the things about life in the streets that you never really want to see. The camera work is excellent...you feel your smallness against the weight of the world. You experience the closeness of Angel's proximity to real danger, and her distance from the "normal" world that moves around her. The nuances, intended or not, position you within the emotional state of each interaction, even when the characters are alone.
I go to movies all the time. Typical Hollywood fare, with an occasional gem that really stands out. But to be honest, from a purely visceral response it will be difficult for Hollywood to come close to the intensity of this film.
Yes, it's that good.