It's never too late to say goodbye...
While shooting a micro-budgeted film is difficult, I've long held that there are certain types of film that benefit from a leaner and meaner approach. I mean, sure, every filmmaker would love to have a bigger budget or an A-list name or something else that would take their film to the next level.
Yet, there are times when I'm sitting in the audience or sitting in my screening room watching a film and I think to myself "In this case, less is more." For me, films about grief have often fallen into this area of being better when simpler. Yes, I've seen well made films made with large budgets. But, quite often I find myself watching a bigger budgeted film about grief and thinking to myself "They're trying to do too much here. Just stay true to the story."
Writer/director Jeffrey Crane Graham's Always, Lola is a film that I can't imagine working with a bigger budget. Okay. Okay. That's maybe not fair. These actors most certainly deserved more than they were likely paid for bringing this story to life. I suppose a few extra bucks here and there could have added a little more sparkle to the film's already well done technical areas.
Yet, I stand by this thought. There's a simplicity to Always, Lola that adds to the film's feeling of honesty. There's an urgency to the film's performances because when you're working on a micro-budget you don't get the opportunity to shoot over and over and over again. There's a naturalness to Always, Lola that works precisely because there was no budget to cover up little mistakes and to edit the little quirks that every film possesses.
After a successful indie fest run that included prizes at Silver State Film Festival (Best Ensemble), Silicon Beach Film Festival (Best Director), and Marina del Rey Film Festival (Best Feature), Always, Lola has been picked up by indie distributor Good Deed Entertainment for release on November 22nd, 2023. Always, Lola was filmed partly in my home state of Indiana and screened in competition in the Indiana Spotlight category of the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival.
Always, Lola is the kind of film that does screen at Heartland, an Academy Award-qualifying film festival with a strong devotion to "truly moving pictures." Always, Lola is a truly moving picture.
While Always, Lola is thematically centered around grief, it's worth noting that it is, for the most part, a feel-good film somewhat reminiscent of some of the 80's hangout movies that many of us know and many of us love. The film centers around a group of high school seniors - Lola (Roxy Striar), her twin sister Katherine (Corrinne Mica), Trey (Collin Campana), Camila (Candice Cruz), Lee (Andrew Ghai), and Riggs (Sheldon White). Lola is the group's wild child, a wildly unpredictable free spirit who both holds this group together and occasionally tears it apart. She is famous for her annual birthday camping trip where she organizes a scavenger hunt with gifts for her best friends, an idea that is both outlandish and endearing.
In other words, Lola is not always the greatest friend but you always know she loves you.
When a tragic overdose takes her life, her friends are left with unresolved grief and the uncertainty over whether they should return to their beloved camping grounds. When it's learned that Lola had already organized the trip before her death, the decision is obvious.
There are moments when Always, Lola leans into the predictable. There are moments when Always, Lola is a tad contrived. Yet, there are also an abundance of moments when Always, Lola flashes us back to our own high school years or college years or first experiences with profound, inexplicable grief. There are moments when Always, Lola makes us laugh and, yes, there are moments when this film breaks out hearts.
Roxy Striar is a complex joy as Lola, the kind of young woman that most of us have loved and embraced and worried about and at times grieved. Striar captures it all and, once again, working on a micro-budget you can't help but feel like this is Striar giving us everything she's got.
The same is true for Mica, an actress whose work I've seen before, tasked with what is perhaps the most complex role here with layers that are slowly peeled away over the course of the film. You love her. You hate her. You don't know how to feel. Then, you understand her.
The ensemble award is particularly appropriate for this film because it's truly difficult to single out a single "best" performance. It's hard to imagine the film without any of these performances. Collin Campana is such a marvel as Trey that I looked up his IMDB page as the closing credits were rolling. He's mostly done episodic TV, though it's hard to imagine that Hollywood won't take notice of his work here.
Candice Cruz is an absolute gem as Camila and Andrew Ghai takes what could have easily been a one-note role as Lee and finds every little nuance. As Riggs, Sheldon White has one scene, in particular, that absolutely wrecked me.
Always, Lola is loosely inspired by the death of Graham's childhood best friend, Peggy. Much likely the sacred experience of gathering on familiar and hallowed ground while grieving, the experience of watching Always, Lola is an exercise in feeling grief yet refusing to surrender to it and making a conscious decision to not go it alone.
Always, Lola is currently available for pre-order on Apple.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic