[Editor’s note: Little Feet is available to New York area viewers at IFC Center this week; others can stream the film at Fandor.]
Has there been a scene more hilarious and inspired at the movies this year than the one in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood when a little girl torments her little brother with an aggressive impromptu bedroom rendition of Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again”? The entertainment value is somehow heightened by the fact that we know the performer is the director’s own daughter Lorelei, playing (particularly at this early point) a presumably barely-fictionalized version of her real-life self.
Professional filmmakers are no less eager to record their offspring than the rest of us. While in the context of “Hollywood” this can sometimes seem like troublesome nepotism (note the mixed emotions provoked by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s uber-precocious children), it’s often produced refreshing results outside the mainstream. When El Topo director Alejandro Jodorowsky aged out of lead roles in his surreal epics, he hired his sons: Getting inspired results from Axel in Santa Sangre (1989) and a quarter century later from Brontis in this year’s comeback The Dance of Reality, even though neither have done much acting for anyone else. Exploitation-movie eccentric Ray Dennis Steckler, temporarily without funding for more commercial projects, corralled friends’ children and his own to make the delightful mid-1960s trilogy of Lemon Grove Kids adventures. They blurred the line between home movies and narrative entertainment by incorporating both parents and tykes into an epic game of “Let’s pretend.”
There’s always something a little magical about capturing child spontaneity in a narrative context. Northern California emigre Cory McAbee (of cult favorite The American Astronaut) made his daughter an integral part of 2009’s hilarious sci-fi musical Stingray Sam, then starred by then seven-year-old Willa and two-year-old John in last year’s freewheeling short feature Crazy & Thief. Their unchaperoned adventures on the streets of NYC are echoed by native New Yorker Alexandre Rockwell’s Little Feet, in which his own son and daughter wander L.A.’s Echo Park over an hour’s whimsical course.
While this very personal work shot on 16mm black-and-white may be his most off-grid project yet, its anecdotal quirkiness is very much in line with the Rockwell you might be familiar with from his best-known work. (In fact Feet contains a few sly references to his prior features.) While it wasn’t his first film, 1992’s In the Soup made him a force to be reckoned with among that era’s explosion of newly arriving American independent directors. It stars Steve Buscemi as a penniless aspiring filmmaker who’s taken for the ride of his life by a shady, colorful fast operator (John Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel) who promises him funding for his auteurist vision. En route they meet up with other colorful types played by Stanley Tucci, Carol Kane, Will Patton, Jim Jarmusch and, as the hero’s love interest, Jennifer Beals of Flashdance fame (then Rockwell’s wife). With its absurdist semi-criminal underworld (including Central Casting tough guys who sing doo woo while strong-arming the rent from slum tenants), In the Soup bridged the older Method-centric Amerindie world of Cassavetes and the wry, off-kilter new one Jarmusch and others had birthed a few years before.
Several of those actors returned in 1994’s seriocomedy Somebody to Love, which also featured the A-list likes of Rosie Perez, Harvey Keitel and old-school Hollywood veteran Anthony Quinn. Rockwell contributed a segment to the next year’s Four Rooms, a somewhat notorious starry omnibus whose other bad-taste black comedy panels were directed by fellow young turks Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Allison Anders.
But Rockwell’s few films in the two decades were comparatively little-seen, despite the loyalty of several name actors (not just Beals and Buscemi, but the soon-to-be-more-famous likes of Peter Dinklage and Sam Rockwell) who continued to show up whenever he called. Maybe Louis & Frank (1998), 13 Moons (2002) and Pete Smalls is Dead (2010) failed to find substantial audiences because indie trends had moved on, while this writer-director remained content mining the kind of idiosyncratic, low-key character-based Amerindie comedics whose popularity peaked circa 1992. Which made In the Soup perfectly timed…the later films, not so much.
Little Feet is at once more of the same and an intriguing departure, in that it’s a child-sized version of a Rockwell movie: The same humorously off-kilter beats, loose wayward narrative, even the same cineaste in-joke references, but scaled to the on-set attention span and writerly imagination of its junior stars. Seven-year-old Lana (who shares story credit with Dad) appears to be pretty much the adult of the house since, we’re informed, Mommy “got sick and died.” She may make phantom appearances to her children, in everything from bathwater to a feather floating mid-air after a pillow fight. But her assumed primary residence in heaven, and dad’s apparent grief-stricken uselessness (when he’s not mysteriously employed wearing a panda outfit, he just sleeps a lot), means that Lana is primary minder to both herself and four-year-old Nico. She cooks their meals (cue smoke alarm), cuts his hair, and keeps them both amused. This latter eventually draws them outside, where they acquire a new friend (Rene Cuante as slightly older boy Nene) with whom they roam the streets and byways of Echo Park. As all journeys must, they end up at the ocean, where one dead spirit (a pet goldfish) is bid adieu and another says hello.
There’s an undertow of poignancy to this lark, which like Crazy & Thief (or, for that matter, Baby’s Day Out) requires a certain suspension of disbelief that our protagonists would come to no harm in their random urban meander, let alone be free to do it unchaperoned in the first place. There are crazy homeless people, irate motorists and others here, but Little Feet is no realistic cautionary tale. Instead, it’s an elaborate game of pretend customized to fit the fantasies of its central players. Not least Dad, whose various-artists soundtrack is clearly the work of a man who loves his vintage vinyl.
Other people’s home movies are, let’s face it, usually boring. But an imaginative hybrid of playtime and professional moviemaking like this one makes you, briefly, part of the family for whom these particular moving pictures will never get old.
For more on Little Feet, see Jim Jarmusch’s interview with Alexandre Rockwell at IFC Dec. 12, 2014.