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Movie Review: Flamingos

Flamingos Beatrice on the beach

Flamingos, the 10th feature film by Antero Alli, is thoroughly remarkable in the way it packs dense, engaging layers of honest emotional and spiritual musings in an extremely constricting framework.

The entire movie takes place in essentially just three locations with six characters. Actually, the film is so economical in its storytelling that one actor is able to convincingly play two of the six parts. Yet, through a spiritually complex script and well designed cinematography, Alli never lets the film feel confined or limited.

The majority of the film takes place in a seedy hotel room where the bank robbing Ray (Joe Estlack) and his girlfriend Zoe (Madeline H.D. Brown) have holed up to lay low while the heat from Ray’s latest heist cools down. Also, Ray is not your traditional bank robber. Instead of using guns to pull off his capers, he hypnotizes tellers into simply giving him money.

While we never get to see Ray’s wizardry at work — we only see the aftermath of his robberies — Estlack ably conveys that his mind manipulation is possible through an intense performance that never relents. He is a charming cajoler, easily transitioning his tone from soothing platitudes to fear-inducing threats to keep Zoe in line with his vision. Ray is clearly an emotionally abusive lover, and perhaps physically abusive as well. Yet Estlack’s easy on-screen charisma makes him instantly sympathetic, seducing the audience into his orbit the way his character has seduced Zoe.

Equally, if not more, impressive is actress Madeline H.D. Brown who gives two completely different performances as twin sisters Zoe and Beatrice. Zoe is Ray’s current lover and Beatrice is his soon-to-be ex-wife. Although twins, the two women exhibit two very distinct personalities. Zoe is still cast under Ray’s manipulative spell, while the more world-weary Beatrice is self-confident and assured, especially in the way she wishes to cut ties to the past with her husband.

For Beatrice’s scenes, which mostly take place in the office of a divorce attorney (Robert Hamm), Brown covers her face with sunglasses and a floppy hat, somewhat concealing her look, so that she appears different from Zoe. However, Brown also carries herself completely differently when she inhabits each character. There is a grace and dignity to Beatrice that the more freewheeling Zoe cannot possess — and vice versa.

The third location of Flamingos goes unmentioned in the film, but the press notes call it the “Bardo interzone.” This is an otherworldly location that appears to be an abandoned underground holding take. But, in this place, are two entities: An adult male dressed as a monk (Ilya Parizhsky) and a playful young girl with burnt skin (Alaska Yamada). Although the two entities exist in this place alone together.

Alli never makes a clear distinction just what these inter-dimensional entities have to do with the story of Ray and his two lovers, even though in one scene Ray admits to dreaming of the little girl. Ray and Zoe’s conversations and arguments are grounded in real world concerns. The fireworks between them really heat up when they begin discuss what life will be like after they leave the hotel. Zoe insists they join a South American hippie commune, while Ray wants to go live atop a mountain in the Himalayas.

The separate journeys that the lovers argue over taking seem equally unrealistic. They are flights of fancy dreamed by two social misfits who long for a place where they might belong. And as Alli continues to divide the action between the real world and the “Bardo interzone,” we come to understand that even though Ray and Zoe are standing still, they are at the crossroads of an emotional journey that the entities will help guide them through.

Ray and Zoe make a terrible, completely incompatible couple, both wanting something completely different out of their lives on Earth. What binds them together is perhaps just a feeding upon each other’s desperate neediness. Well, that and a clear physical attraction.

The verbal jousting between the characters is what really propels the plot along. Through each scene, we learn just a little bit more about each one of them that makes them increasingly intriguing. Their relationships also become incrementally more complex as the conflicts between them become more distinct and combative.

Yes, there is a strong spiritual component to Flamingos, but Alli grounds the majority of his character interaction with real-life concerns. For all the scenes taking place in the Bardo interzone, the hotel room and attorney’s office scenes all feel very grounded. The message this seems to convey is that sometimes the most intense spiritual journeys happen when one has nowhere to go.

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