Director: Jesse Baget
Starring: Tom Sizemore, Hector Jimenez, Olga Segura, Kevin Farley, Stacy Keach
A slight but amiable prison-set satire that mines the thawing relationship between a hardened Ku Klux Klansman and a Mexican farmhand, festival-minted “Cellmates” surfs along mostly on the good fortune of its casting and sly peculiarity of its forced-odd-couple premise. If writer-director Jesse Baget’s movie ultimately doesn’t seem to burrow down and fully comedically exploit its conceit, it’s at least pleasant to see Tom Sizemore back and fully engaged in something other than Eastern European-produced genre tripe.
The movie unfolds in 1977, when Klansman Grand Dragon Leroy Lowe (Sizemore) gets sentenced to a stint in jail in small town Texas. After his first cellmate, Bubba (Kevin Farley), chokes and becomes incapacitated, Leroy lands a new roomie in the form of Emilio Ortiz (Hector Jimenez), a talkative field laborer and would-be union organizer with a wild, tangled mess of hair that resembles a sorority sister’s “JBF” ‘do. Racist Leroy strenuously objects. The warden (Stacy Keach) isn’t entirely unsympathetic to his bigoted views, but is instead more obsessed with potato farming on the prison’s grounds, so he orders Leroy to make nice, all in order to maintain another pair of able working hands.
While suffering through one of the warden’s endless soliloquies about potatoes, Leroy catches the eye of a maid, Madelena (Olga Segura), and eventually enters into clandestine correspondence with her. The rub, however, is that she’s Mexican, and so Leroy needs Emilio’s assistance in writing to her and reading her missives. Over time some of his more stringently offensive rhetoric softens a bit, and Leroy comes to recognize the humanity in his cellmate — even getting Emilio a wig, to help give him the sort of silky smooth hair he’s always wanted.
Jimenez speaks in a cadence that at times more than just faintly recalls Pedro from “Napoleon Dynamite” (no shock, perhaps, given that he appeared in Jared Hess’ follow-up, “Nacho Libre”), but is still left-of-center, and engaging in an oddball way. A big part of the movie’s delight, though, is in seeing Sizemore back in a leading role; while the script necessarily requires a melting away of prejudice, Sizemore doesn’t overly sugarcoat his character’s bigotry. He’s charged and agitated (especially early on) and a bit weird, and many of his line readings have an electric quality to them.
Cinematically, Baget leans on close-ups a bit too much, perhaps in an effort to mask his budgetary limitations. Still, he makes musical selections that really buoy and flavor the movie, lending it a kind of loose-limbed bluegrass authenticity. There are sundry story shortcomings here; the set-up with Leroy’s first cellmate goes on too long, and one wishes that Baget had a bit more narrative ambition, opening up the story to more pointed social commentary, and exploring the relationship between Leroy and Emilio more exclusively, instead of comparatively wasting time with Madalena.
These are failings of omission, however. As is, “Cellmates” engenders no great animosity, and in fact comes across as a pleasant little surprise and calling card for its filmmaker. With greater means and maturation, Baget might enjoy further success. NOTE: In addition to its theatrical release, “Cellmates” is currently available on VOD and digital download. For more information, visit www.CellmatesMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon