Mexico City — SOME emerging filmmakers might freak out if they had to share a shooting locale with Steven Spielberg. But Eva Aridjis always has been drawn to offbeat situations. Offbeat people too.
"I think the one common theme that I always have in mind is kind of the misfit," says Aridjis, referring to her small but impressive, and growing, body of film work. "The characters are always in kind of their own world, people living on the edge of society, kind of outcasts or misfits."
Born in Europe, raised in Mexico City and now living in New York, Aridjis (pronounced ah-REE-jees) knows a thing or two about feeling like a resident alien, and her ability to fathom the humanity in outsiders and eccentrics stamps all her films.
One of her first cinematic efforts was a short documentary about taxidermists and their bizarre art. Her 2002 Spanish-language feature "Ninos de la Calle" (Children of the Street) was a disturbing, sensitively made documentary about the desperate drug-addicted children who prowl Mexico City's crime-infested sidewalks and sleep in its subways.
Since that film was released three years ago, earning a strong response from Mexican critics, Aridjis has maintained her personal relationship with three of the film's adolescent protagonists.
But even "Ninos de la Calle" didn't anticipate the striking emotional precision and storytelling power of "The Favor," Aridjis' first English-language feature film, which she wrote, directed and co-produced on a $500,000 budget. Her achievement is all the more impressive given the paucity of female filmmakers to come out of Mexico, whose sex-segregated movie culture makes Hollywood look positively progressive.
Though beautifully acted by a cast that includes Tony Award winner Frank Wood, "The Favor" is most notable for its screenplay. Aridjis' voice as a writer is humane, smart, worldly and armed with a dead-on sense of humor that never strains to be edgier-than-thou.
"Sometimes what I see as a film producer is, you get the script where it's very quirky without having a lot of heart," says Howard Gertler, executive producer of "The Favor," "and what I love about Eva is despite, sometimes, like the coolness of the setting ... or the quirkiness of the events, there's a real sincerity of the emotional connection there."
Wood, who performed in the recently closed South Coast Repertory production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" in Costa Mesa, describes Aridjis as "one of those extremely intelligent but-not-dependent-on-irony people."
"I don't think she thinks of [her characters] as particularly quirky," Wood says. "She's not an anthropologist looking at contemporary mores. I think she's looking at people that capture her interest immediately."
Befitting Aridjis' own bicultural perspective, "The Favor" takes an unusual insider-outsider view of its idiosyncratic characters and their thoroughly Middle American milieu: It manages to delve deeply into their heads and hearts, yet still regard them with a certain objective distance and tender humor. Like another recent breakout film by a young female writer-director wise beyond her years, Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," "The Favor" focuses on a type of relationship seldom depicted on screen, in this case between a troubled teenage boy and his unlikely foster "father."
Lawrence (Wood) is a fortysomething New Jersey photographer who takes mug shots of criminals and pets for a living. Decent and hardworking, he has been living a low-key, humdrum life for years. That changes abruptly when he hooks up with Johnny, the rebellious son of Lawrence's high school flame. Johnny is played by Ryan Donowho, an up-and-coming heartthrob who appears in the Jim Jarmusch film "Broken Flowers" with Bill Murray.
The movie's title refers to Frank's act of sublime (but also rather strange) generosity in deciding to become Johnny's foster parent when his mother is killed in a freak accident. "The Favor" is in post-production, and Aridjis intends to shop it around the international film festival circuit this winter.
There's a curious behind-the-scenes twist to this story: The bulk of "The Favor" was shot over a six-week period last year primarily in Bayonne, N.J., where Spielberg happened to be filming the sci-fi epic "War of the Worlds," starring Tom Cruise. Many times, en route to her own movie set, Aridjis says, she would pass street signs directing the "War of the Worlds" cast and crew to that day's shoot. Coincidentally, Spielberg shot another part of "War of the Worlds" on the block where Aridjis lives, in Brooklyn's Park Slope district.
Strange but true -- which is the way Aridjis tends to size up the world, both as a person and as an artist.