She is a pretty woman, maybe 40, maybe 45 — but she wears the persona of someone who couldn’t care less about her looks, as she’s too busy carrying the weight of a hardscrabble life on her shoulders.
She has come to the police station to bail out her troubled older brother, who has been arrested for a violent crime. A boy of about 12, who has become friends with the older brother, asks if something happened in the past, something that makes him the way he is now.
Slowly, and then just a little more quickly as the emotions build, the woman tells a story. When she is finished, and our emotions are on the floor, she says simply, “So yeah. Something happened.”
The woman is named Jill, and she is played by Melora Walters (“Magnolia,” “Cold Mountain,” the TV series “Big Love”), and the monologue by Ms. Walters in “Not a Stranger” is as powerful a piece of acting as I’ve seen this year.
Another veteran character actor is front and center in “Not a Stranger,” which is the epitome of an independent film, shot over the course of 15 days last summer in Morgan Park, Mount Greenwood, Beverly and Evergreen Park, on a total budget of about $130,000.
The actor’s name is James Russo. He was the guy who robbed the convenience store at the end of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He was Axel Foley’s friend Mikey who was murdered at the beginning of “Beverly Hills Cop.” You might have seen him in “Open Range,” “Public Enemies,” “Django Unchained” or in any of a hundred other TV or movie roles.
Russo has never been better than he is in this film. It is a quietly powerful, sometimes devastating and heartbreaking performance.
In “Not a Stranger” (which Russo also directed, taking over the reins at the last minute), Russo plays Bob, a 50ish guy who skulks about the neighborhood, spending hours at the neighborhood diner hunched over at a table as his coffee goes cold, driving around in his pickup truck, always looking as if he’s nursing a hangover and a grudge.
Ray (John Babbo) and his best buddies Jimmy (Mesiyah Oduro) and Kevin (Matthew McGuire) are all 12 years old. They’re in that summer zone where all they care about is playing fast-pitch every day. (Fast-pitch: The batter stands in front of wall where a strike zone has been chalked off. One buddy pitches; one guy plays infield, one guy plays outfield. When I was that age, there were days when I spent more hours playing fast-pitch than sleeping.)
The boys are fascinated by Bob even before they learn his name. They follow him around and spy on him, and invent legends about his back story.
When Bob shows up at the fast-pitch playground one day at the behest of the kids, takes the bat away from Jimmy and pounds a fastball over Ray’s head and well over the fence, we wonder if Bob was once a baseball phenom who fell on hard times, a la Roy Hobbs in “The Natural.” What IS this guy’s deal?
Bob begins hanging out with the boys — and yeah, that’s an issue in the film and FOR the film. A mysterious stranger giving joy rides in his pickup truck to adolescent boys? Even if his motives are well-intentioned, we seriously question the judgment of any guy who would do that, and it’s more than slightly problematic for the film, even when Ray’s stepfather (Keith Kupferer) enlists the help of a cop buddy to check out Bob’s past and to pay a little visit to Bob, to warn him away from hanging out with the boys.
At times “Not a Stranger” also bends credulity. Bob hands out books for the boys to read — mostly American classics of the 20th century — and one of the boys fills a notebook with poetry. Not that junior high age kids don’t read, but some of these scenes feel plucked out of a 1950s movie. (Even the nasty bully in “Not a Stranger” would pee his pants if he ran into a REAL 2016-era tough guy.)
The filming sites, however, always feel real — because they ARE real. Locals will recognize Ellie’s Cafe; St. Barnabas Church; the Mount Greenwood cemetery; Sutherland School; Vito and Nick’s, and (though hopefully you haven’t been a guest there) the Evergreen Park Police Station. (So great to see R.D. Call, who has been in a zillion movies, show up as “Sergeant Fitzgerald” in the police station scenes.)
Russo’s direction is solid if extremely straightforward. (One imagines the time and budget constraints pretty much eliminated any fancy camerawork or waiting around for perfect lighting.) The screenplay by Dennis Foley, who also produced and enlisted the help of just about everyone he knew in order to get the film done, is filled with smart and mostly authentic dialogue. While the kids and the supporting players do just fine, it’s the veterans Russo and Walters who shine in searingly honest and raw performances.
“Not a Stranger” will play at the Beverly Arts Center on June 10, 11 and 18, with appearances by the cast members. After that, the future is uncertain. If the film doesn’t find a conventional theatrical release, home video should be a viable option. Lord knows I’ve seen far less accomplished works via my OnDemand menu.
South Side Films presents a film directed by James Russo and written by Dennis Foley. Running time: 88 minutes. No MPAA rating. Screens at 7:30 p.m. June 10, 11 and 18 at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St.