It's impossible to not fall in love pretty quickly with Cami Varela in writer/director Frank A. Cappello's Steele Wool, a darkly comical tale of a semi-ordinary housewife, Daphne Wool (Varela), who disposes of her long abusive husband and gets her chance to taste the high life by subsequently becoming a hired assassin.
Admit it. You just laughed.
You'll laugh a lot throughout Steele Wool, a rather joyously demented little film where you'll find yourself rooting for her royal badness, you can call her Daphne, no matter how gleefully sadistic she becomes. Cappello is no stranger to unique action flicks ranging from his feature debut American Yakuza featuring an early-career Viggo Mortensen to Russell Crowe's No Way Back to He Was a Quiet Man starring Christian Slater, Elisha Cuthbert, and William Macy among others.
This time around, Cappello is directing Cami Varela, a deaf actress who lost both her hearing and her father at a young age. Finding solace on the stage, Varela soon began receiving praise for her wordless performances on the L.A. stage scene. Varela eventually received a cochlear implant, a day she still remembers vividly, that brought back hearing and allowed her to regain full speech. It's refreshing that rather that sugarcoat Daphne's character, Cappello has crafted a character who defies disability stereotypes and pretty much lives into being a badass. Daphne's own cochlear implant simply becomes part of her own scene.
With her cinematic debut, Varela serves notice to Hollywood as she beautifully pulls off an often hilariously ditzy Daphne who can be simultaneously sweetness with just a little bit psycho. It's an absolutely terrific performance and one can only hope it leads to additional work for Varela.
Somewhat unusually, Cappello steps on camera himself as Daphne's sidekick Tony. Tony's a natural smartass with a deadpan humor and an air of coolness without an ounce of actual cool. He and Varela have a relaxed, fun chemistry and it's easy to buy into their camaraderie.
The entire ensemble cast for Steele Wool is absolutely top notch, though special kudos go to newcomer Nicholas Ontiveros as the hitman Moses along with Hollywood vet Jamison Jones as The Boss, Arina Manta as Ileana, whose scenes with Varela are especially awesome, and Johnny Cicco as Vincent.
Steele Wool features an absolutely killer soundtrack from the likes of DJ Quads, Bensound, Basement Freaks, Kevin Macleod, Ben Rothbard, Brick Fields, and Katrina Stone with tunes that infiltrate your brain and stay there for the entirety of the film. The film's lensing is impressive throughout, while Cappello accomplishes wonders with production design despite the inherent challenges of working within a lower budget.
Of course, as a film journalist with a disability myself I'd be remiss if not giving Cappello and Varela much respect for the film's authentic representation and for sticking a middle finger up at anything resembling the usual inspiration porn disability stereotypes. Instead, Varela's Daphne is a badass with a heart who's also deaf and who also uses a cochlear implant throughout the course of the film.
Steele Wool picked up several fest prizes along its festival journey including two Best Actress prizes for Varela - Golden Door International Film Festival of Jersey City and Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival.
Picked up by indie distributor Indie Rights, Steele Wool is now available on both Amazon Prime and Google Play and is one of those little indie gems you love to discover when you're browsing through your late night Amazon options. In this time of Coronavirus, quarantines, and way too much time at home it's the perfect opportunity to give Steele Wool a watch.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic