Movie Review - Zilla and Zoe (Portland Film Festival)

Writer-director Jessica Scalise subverts expectations of what a cute 10-year-old girl is supposed to like. There is perhaps some subversion of what a 21-year-old girl is supposed to like. Subverting gender expectations isn't limited to girls. Seeing a man make frou-frou cupcakes was funny, but, Scalise's focus is mainly on the two young girls. At its heart, this is a romantic comedy, a typical rom-com that culminates in a wedding. Yet, Scalise is also spoofing the genre. There isn't a lot of meta-commentary but it does for rom-coms what Scream (1996) did for horror films. Ironically, Scalise uses horror as a method of that spoofing.

I couldn't help but be reminded of The Birdcage (1996), the remake of La Cage Aux Folles, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Greg James arguably is in the Robin Williams role and Kurt Conroyd in the Nathan Lane role. Yet, here, they don't play a gay couple, despite there being an inside joke that they look like one. For those in the know, James and Conroyd did play a gay couple briefly in The Benefits of Gusbandry, also screening at the Portland Film Festival.

Here, however, Greg James plays Sal, the father in question who is single and has sole custody of his two daughters. His wife and mother to his kids has been out of the picture for nearly a decade, not long after his second child was born. He has been raising his girls pretty much by himself in his nice suburban home, somewhere in Portland. He does have the occasional help from his deadbeat brother, Oscar, played by Kurt Conroyd. Oscar's deadbeat disposition is only matched by his rather deadpan sensibility, a dry humor that pervades this entire film.

Like Robin Williams' character in The Birdcage, Sal is surprised when his eldest daughter and pre-med student, Zilla, played by Sam Kamerman, comes home from college and announces she's getting married and that her future in-laws are going to be visiting very soon. Like Williams' character, Sal runs around trying to keep things under control and trying to make a good impression to the in-laws. What's different is that Williams' character attempted to hide his homosexuality. Here, it's not Sal's sexuality. It's his daughter, Zilla, who's gay and she's not trying to hide it. In fact, she wants it brought out into the day.

In The Birdcage, there was a concerted effort to subvert what or who could be feminine. Similarly, this film subverts the idea of femininity in that the two brides-to-be here reject the stereotypical expressions. It's not that they reject femininity all together. The message here is that they simply don't have to conform to the overly stereotypical gender roles. They can and should do what they want and how they want it. It's up to those around them who love them to accept that.

Meanwhile, Aida Valentine who plays the younger sister and Sal's youngest daughter, Zoe, appears to be in a completely different movie. She's off in her own world. While everyone else is doing a version of The Birdcage, Valentine is doing a version of Bowfinger (1999), putting herself in the Steve Martin role. Yet, Zoe is less a con artist and more in the Ed Wood variety, which might be a little insulting, but she's an earnest filmmaker-in-training.

Her scenes-within-scenes add to the hi-jinks here. Sal's uptight silver-fox routine, coupled with neighbors who appear in windows instead of knocking on front doors, as well as Oscar's simple-minded comments move this movie into TV sitcom-land. Yet, it's saved through heart-warming moments, such as the relationship between Zilla and her lesbian fiancée, Lu, played by Mia Allen.

It's certainly an achievement when Scalise can make a coffin into an object of one's affection. That, and a dance, probably inspired by Michael Jackson's "Thriller," makes this an appropriate film to show on Halloween, which is the case at this year's Portland Film Festival.

Not Rated but contains some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.

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