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From a Self-Indulgent Life to Parenthood

'Margarita Happy Hour,' by writer-director-editor Ilya Chaiken in an auspicious feature debut, follows an artist struggling with her life's transition.

July 05, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ilya Chaiken's "Margarita Happy Hour" captures beautifully a period in a young artist's life when she's beginning to experience the full impact of the responsibilities of motherhood.

Eleanor Hutchins' Zelda is slim and striking, a standout in the New York art scene she frequents. Home is a well-appointed Brooklyn apartment she shares with her would-be novelist lover Max (Larry Fessenden) and their baby, Little Z. Zelda can summon lots of sullen attitude when she thinks the occasion calls for it, but fundamentally she is a kind, thoughtful person and instinctively a responsible mother.

Indeed, it is her desire to be a good parent that marks the beginning of a slow and painful transformation. She yearns to remain a scene queen, but taking care of Little Z takes priority. Like it or not, Zelda is forced to consider the life she is leading. Just how she and Max make ends meet is not clear, but her only apparent source of income is as an illustrator for a porn publication. In addition to caring for an infant, she is stuck with two losers--Max, an indolent, hard-drinking failed novelist, and Natali (Holly Ramos), who's recovering from a near-fatal drug overdose.

Zelda draws solace from four friends she meets regularly at a neighborhood bar for happy-hour margaritas, but inevitably she sees herself in them--attractive women who sense their options are running out along with their 20s. Suitable mates and suitable employment seem elusive for this group, yet they cling to a carefree, hard-partying, making-the-scene lifestyle that they should have outgrown.

Writer-director Chaiken, admittedly drawing upon personal experiences, has made a mature film grappling with immaturity. Chaiken takes a wry, detached, sometimes ruefully amused stance, at the same time involving us with people who are not particularly sympathetic.

Chaiken also manages to make the film conversational without seeming talky, the curse of many New York filmmakers, and she has as sure an instinct for the succinct image and brisk pacing as she does for dialogue. Hutchins is as much a discovery as Chaiken, and both command attention in a natural, unpretentious manner. Best known as the director of the acclaimed "Habit" and recent "Wendigo," Fessenden captures well the contradictions and conflicting impulses of Max.

Effective in all its aspects, "Margarita Happy Hour" represents an auspicious feature debut for Chaiken.

Unrated. Times guidelines: Strong language, considerable drug-taking and drinking.

'Margarita Happy Hour'

Eleanor Hutchins ... Zelda

Larry Fessenden ... Max

Holly Ramos ... Natali

Barbara Sicuranza ... Graziella

A Passport Productions and Susie Q Productions presentation. Writer-director-editor Ilya Chaiken. Producers Michael Ellenbogen, Susan Leber. Cinematographer Gordon Chou. Music Max Lichtenstein. Production designer Bridget Evans. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (at Fairfax Avenue), L.A. (323) 655-4010.

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