In writer-director Jim Akin’s The Ocean of Helena Lee, the first thing you may notice about 12-year-old Helena Lee (and the young actress, Moriah Blonna, who plays her) is the diverting mole on the left side of her chin, the sort of punctuation which amplifies the beauty of the face which it interrupts– a face which manages to playfully mix the openness of youth with a preternatural wariness. That wariness is best reflected in Helena’s eyes, forever darting, absorbing, reconsidering the characters that scurry and spin along the Venice Beach boardwalk where she will play out her summer, and a couple seasons beyond, trying to wrap her arms around a world whose conflicting influences and absence of empathy worries, confounds and compels her.
This young girl spends less time with others her own age than she does in the company of her dad Micky (Tom Dunne), an aimless, well-meaning surf-bum with a philosophical bent (“I recommend time slowing down”) and only a vaguely defined sense of parental responsibility. She sleeps in the sand-littered closet of his cluttered one-bedroom apartment, almost more a roommate than a daughter, assessing the constant parade of sunbathers, strippers and hookers that pass his way against the very interactive memory of her recently deceased mother, Luisa (Maria Mckee), who haunts Helena with maternal comfort and soothing lullabies (written by Mckee and Akin) from beneath a diaphanous, shroud-like veil. She’s a muse from the beyond the grave who connects Helena with a nascent sense of personal contemplation, life’s mysteries, disappointments and its inevitable end, and the combination of Mckee’s soulful voice and spectral beauty fill the demands of the role nicely.
Helena, as you might guess, is precocious, but in a muted sort of way, stuck uncomfortably somewhere between the adventure of growing up and an oncoming weariness from having seen too much too soon. While most girls on the precipice of their teen years are more worried about social situations and having fun, Helena is soberly considering a life as a writer (“Everyone’s got a story. Thing is, sometimes it’s hard to stay tuned in. I always wonder, what does the storyteller want? What do I want?”) The movie is thusly imagined as a loosely constructed tour through her imagination, as the temperament of her grief over her mother and dissatisfaction with her father shapes her observations as raw material for a story waiting to be told.
Blonna has an easygoing, naturalistic quality to her performance that never spills over into a Hollywood sort of precocious, yet she has confidence and a welcome directness. She’s not quite up to the demands of the dramatic confrontation she has with Micky near the end, when Helena calls him on his lack of focus as a parent (“My stomach hurts. I feel lonely. If I get hurt, you can’t even drive me to the hospital. Do you see me?”). But Akin’s movie isn’t built on confrontation, and the rest of Helena happily remains Blonna’s movie– we just live in it.
The only time the movie noticeably breaks with Helena’s point of view is during a scene in which Micky confesses his own emptiness in the wake of his wife’s death (“I’ve got a black seed in place of my heart”) to a prostitute played by Kristina Neykia, last seen as a hobbled succubus in Akin’s casually brilliant After the Triumph of Your Birth (2012). Akin intercuts that confession with shots of Helena on the Venice boardwalk, as if to confirm the unconscious connection with her dad, a way of acknowledging that she’s aware of the existence of that black seed. She’s part of the scene, yet she’s not, in a way similar to how, in The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman imposed a reflection of Marlowe on the beach into an argument between Eileen and Roger Wade taking place in their Malibu living room. Akin comes close to that movie’s overall gliding, ethereal vision of Los Angeles too, though for quite a dissimilar end.
At one point, Micky inquires to Helena in the innocuous way that parents sometimes do about how school is going. “You know,” Helena replies. “I like to learn. Don’t like to be taught.” That offhanded comment resonates not only with Helena’s summer of discovery, but also with the fresh, distinctive style Akin is developing as a filmmaker. Only his second feature, The Ocean of Helena Lee feels even more confident than its predecessor, which juggled a circus’s worth of impulses and stylistic conceits without betraying a bead of sweat. His sense of where to break from scenes (usually a beat before you think they should) and how to tender connections between individual moments (Helena’s unnamed friend pops up every so often to ground her, and us, in a more common variety of teenage experience) speaks to his own intangible impulses as a provocative conductor of moments.
But the director also manages to fuse what he’s learned from a diverse band of European and American filmmakers with those impulses to create something that feels new, freshly imagined. One can discern the spirit of Kings of the Road-era Wim Wenders flitting around the edges of TOOHL, as well as Fellini’s affinity for unusual human and environmental beauty, and the movie is attuned to Helena’s inner spirit in such a way that it feels at times like a Dardennes Brothers joint on rollerblades, gliding effortlessly down the boardwalk to the beach-friendly strains of Mckee and Akin’s propulsive pop score.
This being a movie at least in part about Los Angeles, it won’t be a surprise to learn that David Lynch comes up in Akin’s internal conversation as well. Here though the Lynchian influence is more tempered than it was in the previous film. In Helena there is no equivalent to the eerie bombast of ATTOYB’s Answer Man, a character who seemed directly attributable to Lost Highway, and the foreboding and tearful empathy that courses just beneath the breezy context of Helena’s imagery seems much more organic, a product of the girl’s fertile imagination and her anxieties, in a way that the previous movie’s musical demon never quite achieved. There’s real tension here between being set loose and aimless in a sun-splashed paradise to contemplate the world, the idle idyll of summer, and the vast indifference with which these days of heaven seem to be enveloped. In the end, the most remarkable thing is that the writer-director is aware of all these influences too, yet always manages to stay true to his own much more heartfelt muse.
Akin seems to function on the periphery of the American independent filmmaking scene, in terms of distribution and in terms of the fierce visual intelligence with which his movies are made, and that leaves lots of room for the sort of truly independent development of artistic personality that often gets crushed in the stampede toward more mainstream success. But I can imagine a sort of cognitive dissonance for some viewers in encountering The Ocean of Helena Lee. This is a movie that is, at its heart, very European in its storytelling temperament—that is to say, it rather proudly stands outside the sort of narrative behavior one usually encounters in a movie populated with and made by native Southern Californians.
Some will listen to Micky’s philosophical musings, which sometimes land with a clunk when one is expecting less poetically inclined dialogue, and cry “Pretentious!” Which is neither an entirely unearned accusation nor one from which Akin or other similarly inclined filmmakers should necessarily flee. The sort of articulated contemplations that wouldn’t seem out of place in a black-and-white German movie (with subtitles) about angels in Berlin might indeed play a little strange coming out of the mouths of beach bums and bohemian hangers-on knocking sand from the bottom of their sandals. But is that Akin’s problem or ours? The difference between lofty and insufferable, it seems to me, can be measured in the perception of sincerity, and by its probing of a young girl’s development toward intellectual independence The Oceans of Helena Lee can hardly be cast as a cynical bid for artsy hipster cred.
There is one major disconnect between Helena’s life and that of her peers in the real world. Though the chronology is ostensibly present-day, at no time is she ever seen tweeting, texting, taking selfies or operating any sort of personal electronic device. Chroniclers of modern-day verisimilitude will have to take note (it’s what they do), but this 4G-free phenomenon will serve to remind viewers that what Akin has served up here is a long way from the up-to-the-minute snark of something like Glee. The absence of electronic intrusions into a teenager’s life may, on the face of it, be “unrealistic,” but it’s also perhaps more significant evidence than any that Helena’s story, her desire to seek out her own point of view, to reinvent the world, as she puts it, takes place in the rarified world of imagination, filtered through the lens of artistic license and/or wish fulfillment of a very personal nature. In After the Triumph of Your Birth, Akin alluded to the difficult relationship between his seeker protagonist, Eli, and that man’s demanding, long-dead father. After completing a 100-mile journey of his own Eli pulls out a picture of his old man, a faded, folded and creased mug shot, and pays tribute. And as a prelude to the end credits of The Ocean of Helena Lee, a picture of that same man shows up again– this time he’s posed in a surf suit very much resembling one worn by Micky early on in the film. Beside the faded, slightly blurry image a title card reads simply, “Michael Lee Akin—‘A Day to Surf’—Summer ’73.”
It isn’t much of a stretch to connect the dots, but the grace of Akin’s film is rooted in the writer-director never pushing the point. Among many other things, The Ocean of Helena Lee is a look through the eyes of a girl who wants to learn to see life her own way, as well as a tribute to those who helped her adjust her focus. It’s a perspective we can indulge in even more vividly thanks to the marvelous empathy of this filmmaker’s very personal, independent vision.
If you’re in Los Angeles next month, you can see the world premiere of The Ocean of Helena Lee Friday, May 8, at the Egyptian Theater as an exclusive presentation of the American Cinematheque. That night the movie will be followed by a discussion with Jim Akin, Maria Mckee, Tom Dunne and others moderated by screenwriter Josh Olson and director Allison Anders, and that panel with then be followed by a live concert performance by Mckee, backed by Akin and Tom Dunne, performing music from the movie and more. Acoustic performances from Mckee will accompany each subsequent screening of the movie, May 9-13, in the Spielberg Theater at the Egyptian.
Then, to finish off the week of screenings and performances, a double bill of The Ocean of Helena Lee and After the Triumph of Your Birth will screen at the Aero on Thursday, May 14, capped by yet another full-band live performance by Maria Mckee. If you’ve never seen Mckee perform live before, this should rate as a can’t-miss/won’t-miss/mark-your-calendar sort of event, especially in conjunction with a screening of the new movie. You can get your tickets for any of the seven scheduled performances right here, and I suggest you do so right now, because this opportunity won’t come around again.