Finally, A Fun, Flawed ‘Flea’ – September 10, 2012
Eye Arts Scrutinizer
Note: This review pertains to the pre-screening of Flea; particulars of the final cut may differ. However, the pre-screening was open to the public and therefore open to review. The reviewer also feels compelled to disclose that some of her artwork appears onscreen in the film.
Wandering about the Plaza, have you ever paused and wondered whether there might be more going on than meets the eye? Is there a secret cabal, an underground community, an epic struggle between good and evil being played out under our very oblivious noses? And do Plazoids have secret superpowers?
Producer/writer/director Suza Lambert Bowser has clearly pondered these questions, and Flea is her answer: unequivocally, yes.
Set in an Arcata both familiar and strange, Bowser’s latest film follows the journey of Flea/Frank (played by Westleigh Stenborg-Davies), a mute boy with a destiny and unrealized potential. Journeying between the worlds of the Shadow Clan (an underground forest-living culture) and the Clean People (mainstream society), Flea is prophesied to be a sort of savior of both peoples.
The narrative structure of Flea relies on classic tropes of Good versus Evil. The Good is clearly the Shadow Clan, an assortment of woodland children looked after by a motley collection of adult guardians of wildly varying competence and magical ability, led by Raven (played by Bowser herself). The Evil is the Bottomland Clan, a collection of evildoers seemingly doing evil for the sake of evildoing, led by Badger (Bruce D. Cole).
Flea holds few surprises; bad guys attack good guys, a traitor betrays his people, the hero of prophecy must come into his power in order to defeat the villain and along the way, sacrifices are made. The whole comes off as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome under the influence of Neil Gaiman.
Visually, Flea is a competent, occasionally even stunning film, particularly if you know and love Arcata. Seeing familiar locales such as the alley behind Tavern Row and Arcata Scrap and Salvage reinvented as fantastic battlegrounds doesn’t fail to thrill. Finding friends and acquaintances popping up on the big screen likewise provides a happy jolt.
Technically, there is little to critique. The lighting on occasion fluctuates from bright to dark within the same scene, a likely result of filming plein air in Humboldt County. The set dressing is well done, from the post-apocalyptic look of Badger’s lair to the sweetness of Poet’s treehouse and Raven’s nest. The special effects are surprisingly good, especially those involving fight scenes between Rubber Band Man (Pryncz Lotoj) and Badger. The soundtrack, also by Bowser, sometimes succeeds in heightening tension but sometimes becomes obtrusive and distracting.
The acting is inconsistent, as is to be expected from a cast that combines both professionals and amateurs. What is surprising is that it is the newcomer, Westleigh Stenborg–Davies – who isn’t credited on the website and barely appears on the poster, despite being the title character of the movie and in every scene! – who delivers the most nuanced performance as Flea. Perhaps because his character is mute, Stenborg–Davies delivers a bravura performance in his subtle changes of facial expression that hint at his character’s turmoil, philosophic outlook, grief and ultimate resolve.
What is surprising is that Bowser failed to rein in her own and other actors’ performances to match the subtle power of Stenborg–Davies’. By and large, the “name” actors who get top billing fail to give their characters much depth, instead falling back on rote deliveries of familiar fantasy characters. Poet the wise man (Josef Cannon), Marsh Man the mentor (Barry Williams), Strawberry the healer (Elizabeth Carlson) and Badger are all one-note characters; while that may be a product of the script, these experienced actors fail to elevate the material to the bar set by Stenborg-Davies.
The editing was somewhat lacking in the pre-screened version. Jumps in time were occasionally awkward, with one flashback to Flea’s first meeting with Raven starting off mid-dialogue. Likewise, it was occasionally difficult to keep track of the narrative when characters in one scene suddenly appeared elsewhere without any transition, especially Badger, whose varying hairstyle made him unrecognizable from one scene to another.
One editing choice in particular especially rankled. Having established that Badger exploits women and has a liking for “fresh meat,” Bowser underscores his atrociousness by showing him disposing of the body of his latest young victim in a dumpster. It does not seem particularly necessary to then cut to a scene of Badger fatally assaulting the young woman, shot from his point of view thereby placing the audience in the shoes of the perpetrator, an editing trick most commonly reserved for slasher films.
Finally, this is not the film for those with a low tolerance for plot holes. If Flea/Frank’s mother is so eager to find her runaway son, why doesn’t she check out his school, which he still attends? If all the adult guardians of the Shadow Clan have superpowers while only Badger of the Bottomlands has powers, why are the guardians so easily vanquished?
Despite the inconsistencies in filming, acting and plot, Flea is a well-intentioned effort, a colorful bauble of a film and an entertaining look at a fantastical Arcata we all suspected was there all along.