Title: Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home
Director: Thomas Napper
Narrated by Catherine Keener, “Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home” provides a poignant, illuminating look at the titular downtown Los Angeles area which serves as the residence to a large portion of the city’s indigent population. Far from just serving as an audio-visual grief mop — prodding viewers with images of despair — director Thomas Napper’s deeply humanistic movie throws a non-exploitative spotlight on people who have both found a way to make a life for themselves within this community of homelessness and also make themselves of greater service.
Skid Row, covering about one square mile, serves as home base for as many as 11,000 Los Angelenos, two-thirds of whom struggle with some form of mental illness, drug addiction or both. In uncompromising fashion, “Lost Angels” tells its story, funneled through eight inhabitants as well as a variety of advocates and volunteers who man the Midnight Mission, first opened in 1914, and various other community outreach service programs. In doing so, the movie lays waste to certain misconceptions about both those who pass through Skid Row (meet Danny Harris, a scholarship track athlete and former Olympic medalist) and their reasons for being there, since single-dwelling units on a meager disability stipend are hardly affordable anywhere else (“We’re not here because we’re homeless — just less of home, maybe,” says one woman).
The film also shows the squeeze on the homeless on both sides — how the increased gentrification of the area has coincided with the tail end of changes in the mental health care system and the increased criminalization of behavior (loitering and the like) that is not as strictly policed elsewhere. The latter is sorted through the prism of Los Angeles’ controversial September 2006 “Safer Cities” initiative, a $6 million campaign launched under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton in which 50 new dedicated police officers were given new mandates for enforcement without the promised expansion of social services.
“Lost Angels” has its roots in 2009’s “The Soloist,” which told the true story of a homeless musician with Julliard training. As the second unit director on that film, Napper, like many others involved with the project, was charmed and affected by the many homeless people who auditioned for parts as extras in the movie, which was shot on location in downtown Los Angeles. That personal connection is evident throughout the deeply humanistic “Lost Angels,” shot more than three years ago over the course of almost six months.
Both in its focus on those on the margins of society and its frequently artful blend of direct-address interviews and landscape footage, “Lost Angels” recalls “Interview Project,” a 2009 web series executive produced by David Lynch. Interviewees like UCLA law professor Gary Blasi and others provide an articulate (and much more traditional) academic assessment of the different causes of this social blight. However, it’s the Skid Row residents themselves — like transgendered, self-described “freak” Bam Bam, dedicated street sweeper OG, and stray cat lover Lee Anne and her protector and fiancé KK — whose faces and stories will stick with you.
NOTE: “Lost Angels” opens in Los Angeles for an exclusive engagement at the ArcLight Hollywood.
Written by: Brent Simon