The domestic New York rendered in The Big Shot-Caller has not appeared so seductively hazardous since Spike Lee’s heyday. The metropolitan flame, however, flickers out for this moth-like viewer shortly after the film’s artful prologue, where tersely edited medium shots depict the fractured childhood of siblings Jamie and Lianne. This bold succession of dimly lit images is a rare success of visually economical storytelling: Chubby kids peer out from gaps in venetian blinds so slivers of moonlight can score their cheeks, and inter-cut television programs are so painfully out of focus they’re like sponge paintings. There’s expository narration too, so these scenes aren’t quite free-floating through the audience’s associative imagination, but the overdubbed voice is thick, elderly Castellano. It’s a distancing masterstroke, given that the remainder of the film is English-language.
The problem with each of these poetic elements, however, is that their narrative purposes are so banal they retrospectively rob the film’s opening of its frosty magic. The blurry television, for example, was merely displaying the point of view of protagonist Jaime, whose ocular disorder has proved an insurmountable obstacle occluding the fruition of his lifelong obsession with salsa dancing. To console himself of this personal tragedy he does what most wannabe performance artists do in movies and selects an occupation at the inverse pole of the expression spectrum (accounting) while morphing into a gawky, adenoidal adult. That is, until a series of romantic setbacks with local racial stereotypes—actress Laneya Wiles’s Elissa manages to defame both African-American women and Latinas with her beer-guzzling sloth and Rosie Perez elocution—forces him to crash on his estranged sister’s sofa and reevaluate his goals.
This Hallmark Channel formula is about all there is of a plot, and the leads are horrendously miscast: Writer-director Marlene Rhein portrays the spacey, independent sister hiding a well of inner timidity herself, and her brother David plays the lead without a germ of actorly self-awareness. One suspects that the script was drawn from their own life experiences, particularly since a title card reading “Based on Real Events” is irritatingly shown during the opening credits, but natural sibling chemistry can only partially distract from weak characterizations and contrived line readings. Rhein can use a camera, as the film’s sexily nebulous start and fluidly-cut dance sequences prove, but she’s a wannabe auteur with her own natural handicap: a nearly mystical and quite foolhardy confidence in the universality of her story. This is, I’m assuming, how she was able to make a movie where the phrase “Big Shot-Caller” refers with asinine candor to God and cosmic destiny, and where the grandfatherly narrator—a wizened American expat living in South America—reminds us eerily of Nazi war criminals.