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  • Source: THE GUARDIAN
  • Author: Peter Bradshaw
  • Date: MAY 6, 2024
  • Format: DIGITAL

Drylongso review – charming 90s indie is a genre-resistant film that keeps its DIY dazzle

Cauleen Smith’s 1998 debut about a California girl who takes Polaroids of young black men as an endangered-species record, is captivating

Innocence … a still from Drylongso

The title is an African American term from the US south meaning “ordinary” or “ordinariness” – but there’s nothing ordinary about this 1998 indie from artist and film-maker Cauleen Smith, rereleased for its 25th anniversary. Smith shot it in her 20s while still in grad school at UCLA, and maybe the film does have a distinctive film-school project feel with its DIY aesthetic. But there is a captivating kind of innocence in its walking-pace narrative, its indifference to the irony and self-awareness that was fashionable in independent cinema at the time, and in the unaffected charm and guilelessness of its performances.

Toby Smith plays Pica, a girl who lives with her mother and grandmother in a chaotic house near Oakland, California, where she is enrolled in a photography class; instead of creating artistically refined studies on 35mm film cameras as demanded by her professor, Pica is taking Polaroids of young black men because she believes this is a kind of endangered-species record, as so many of these men will wind up in prison or dead. It’s a radically simple street-art reportage, which of course makes the professorial sophisticated compositions look dull and bloodless; the film itself arguably endorses the Polaroid aesthetic.

Pica is to befriend Tobi (April Barnett) who was being abused by her partner and now dresses as a boy on the street to intimidate white people and avoid sexist harassment from everyone; Pica also has a gentle romance with a local artist which brings her fatefully into contact with a serial killer who has been terrorising the neighbourhood.

The charm and distinction of Drylongso lies in its resistance to genre: it isn’t exactly a social-realist drama, nor precisely a thriller, nor specifically a romance. Its bizarre serial killer storyline, though involving murder and horror, is perhaps not to be taken entirely seriously. In fact, it is closer to being an urban pastoral, a midsummer night’s dream in Oakland. It is evidence of a unique talent.

Drylongso is in UK cinemas from 11 May.