Sex slavery, Japanese hit men, and ordinary car thieves converge on the mean streets of Long Island City in Off Jackson Avenue, John-Luke Montias’s engagingly lurid but ultimately tepid crime drama. Set in the pre-gentrification days of Queens’s hippest nabe (though signs of change are already present), Montias’s location-shot film paints its gritty milieu as a world given over to shady dealings and peopled by unlucky strivers forever forced into compromising situations.
Comprised of three interlocking narratives, the film expends most of its energy on the most sensational of its threads. Lured from her native Mexico to New York with the promise of work in a new restaurant, Olivia (Jessica Pimentel) instead finds herself forced into prostitution, kept prisoner inside a Jackson Avenue house and subject to the whims of a brutish Albanian pimp (Stivi Paskosi) who likes to strangle his women with a belt. Without indulging in any graphic imagery, Montias is loose enough with suggestive detail (a john abuses Olivia with racial epithets as he climaxes, another girl confesses to having had to sleep with 19 men a day) to create an atmosphere of fascinated debasement. Pimentel looks sufficiently humiliated throughout, but without a corresponding depth of characterization, these scenes seem designed more for a questionable voyeurism than for any kind of humanist sympathizing, even as Olivia finally turns the tables on her captor.
The other two threads can’t help but fall short of the lurid example set by the sex slave angle, though they continue its theme of attempted upward mobility. In one narrative strand, a man (Montias) jacks cars until he can afford to buy his own tire shop, but his dreams run aground on the ruthless dealings of the store’s former owner. In the last thread, a Japanese man (Jun Suenaga) supplements his meager income as an English teacher by flying to America to conduct mob hits. His task is complicated by the mid-assignment death of his mother, who turns up as a ghost to interrogate him. This last segment, in particular, provides a meditative counterpart to the more action-oriented narrative of Olivia’s story, but it’s ultimately too stale in its conception (the dead appearing to the living, super-cool Asian hit-man) to add anything of value to Montias’s conception.
A stern rebuke (as if we needed another) to anyone’s antiquated notions of the American dream, the film stacks the deck mercilessly against at least two-thirds of its principal characters, even as it wisely suggests new possibilities at the end for all three. But between the largely amateurish acting and the occasional clumsiness of the plotting, Montias has little of interest to suggest about the difficulties of making a go at life in 21st-century New York, except that it’s difficult to succeed, especially if you’re an immigrant, and that—P.S. 1, Dutch Kills, and Tournesol notwithstanding—you’re really better off giving a wide berth to Long Island City altogether.