Helena Lee (Moriah Blonna) is a 12-year-old girl living with her father Micky (Tom Dunne) in the anything-goes vibrant beach community of Venice Beach. Micky is a drummer at a local strip club. He surfs. He bums around. A parade of women tromp through the little beach house, and Helena Lee lies in her “bed,” an improvised situation with a mattress on the floor of the closet.
Helena wants to be a writer. She is interested in the meaning of Stories, not just what happens in the plot, but what it all might signify. What do stories mean, what purpose do they serve, and what is her story? If she can figure out what her story is, perhaps she will understand the direction she needs to take. And maybe if she knows the story, she will be able to avert disaster. She spends her days wandering around the beach, seeing things, thinking about things, enjoying the water, the sun, the sand, tracking it home into her mattress on the floor.
She is not lost, not really. It’s her father who is lost. He is a man who has never grown up. He doesn’t want his daughter to feel the pressure to grow up, either. When she asks him questions about life or death, he answers seriously, interested in throwing ideas around with her. He is an amateur philosopher. He appears one day in their living room, wearing a suit, saying, “Okay, time for work!” The next shot shows him surfing, in his suit, all as she frolics in the waves at his side.
Helena’s mother is dead and she appears repeatedly to Helena, sometimes walking at her side along the cliffs, looking down on the water, sometimes cradling her in her lap as they sit in the sand together. Helena’s mother is a watchful and mysterious presence, veiled in white. She is played by the great Maria McKee (Akin’s wife and co-collaborator).
Similar to Helena Lee’s thoughts on Story, Jim Akin’s thoughts on Story are personal, evocative, and inclined towards the symbolic. Language can bind you up in abstractions. But images like the beach, and the colorful murals, the streetlamps of Venice Beach, the piers sticking out into the water wreathed in colored lights, the feeling of what it means to grow up in a beach town like that … these are things that have meaning in and of themselves, calling up personal associations and memories and dreams. And that is the atmosphere Jim Akin creates in his film (and he did so in his first feature as well, After the Triumph of Your Birth, which also starred Tom Dunne). The Ocean of Helena Lee is semi-autobiographical. These are streets Jim Akin knows well. But it takes a poet, it takes an artist, to look at that which is familiar and see it anew, examine it, upend it, revel in it. This process could be self-indulgent or narcissistic, but not in the hands of an artist. James Joyce had very mixed feelings about Ireland, felt he could never live there, and yet Ireland was all he wrote about. He wrote about all of it: its prudery, its hypocrisy, its love of martyrdom, he wrote about all its ugliness, but he wrote about its beauty too. Akin knows these boardwalks and piers and cliffs like he knows the back of his own hand: and that knowledge shows in the film. It’s a collage, a mood piece, in many ways, with one fantastic image after another. He is incapable of setting up a shot in a boring or “stock” way.He has an incredible eye, for angles for juxtapositions, for the striking and memorable.
But his style is in service to the story. Eventually what ends up happening is the rhythm of Venice Beach, captured so effortlessly in the film, the waves, the ocean in all its moods, the wide streets, the little beach houses, the carnival atmosphere on the boardwalks and sidewalks … these things become a part of us, watching. I didn’t even need the ongoing soundtrack of the waves in order to hear its eternal presence. The Ocean of Helena Lee is so rooted in its specific world that I felt the sand between my toes watching it.
Young Moriah Blonna makes her film debut, and she is beautifully natural, a thoughtful and serious presence, the anchor of the film. Her worry for her father is palpable. Her missing of her mother is omnipresent. She has a friend, a peer, whom she hangs out with, skipping down the streets at night, and it’s one of the only times that you are reminded … Hey, wait a second, this is a little girl here. Her father, kindly and harmless though he may be, is a wreck. Her anxiety about what will happen to her if something happens to him … is a huge part of why she wants to be a writer, of her obsession with Story. What is going to happen? If she could write it out, maybe she could find a “Happily Ever After.” Maybe.
Jim Akin and Maria McKee have collaborated on all aspects of the film (as they did with After the Triumph of Your Birth). They have written an unforgettable score, featuring the powerful vocals of McKee, accompanying Helena Lee on her wanderings across the beach, along the cliffs, through the cool nighttime streets. McKee’s voice is one of the best voices out there: the first time you hear it, it becomes a part of you forever. It is a voice visceral with emotion and power, trembling with courageous vulnerability, and yet she has complete control over that instrument: It does what she wants it to do, it goes where she wants it go. There’s one lament in particular so raw it made the hair on my skin rise up.
Jim Akin’s work is personal. His care and affection for his topics (and the images he chooses) is apparent in every frame. He really looks at things, he really sees. After the Triumph of Your Birth took place in the industrial wasteland sections of Los Angeles, the drying-up canal, the old warehouses, the blasted-by-sunlight empty factories. It is part of a California rarely seen in film. And so, too, his vision here. Venice Beach has its own character, its own vibe, and Akin captures it, in its loneliness and isolation, in its beauty and its sleaze, and also in its cacophony of community and expressiveness.
Whimsical and poignant, devastating and hopeful, The Ocean of Helena Lee stayed with me long after the final frame.
You can read more about The Ocean of Helena Lee here, and check out the trailer below.
The film will premiere at the American Cinematheque (Egyptian Theatre) in Los Angeles on May 8th, and will be available on iTunes and Amazon on May 14th.