Film Review: Gold Star

Filmmaker Victoria Negri’s modest indie drama falters tracking the redemptive journey of a fairly insufferable heroine.
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A dozen or so silver screen Scrooges readily attest to cinema’s lengthy, lauded tradition of focusing on the comeuppance, or coming around, of the mean and selfish crank. But on film, as in life, an egomaniac needs to show some spark of discernible appeal or potential for greatness, or Jack Nicholson-sized personality, to grab and hold an audience’s attention on the uphill climb towards learning the value of sacrifice.

In writer-director Victoria Negri’s debut feature, Gold Star, the crank in question, Vicki Calligari, portrayed rather flatly by Negri herself, evinces not enough appeal to overcome her irksome habit of hogging all the attention in every room, even her father’s hospital room. More than a larger-than-life personality or stinging wit, it’s Vicki’s petulant demeanor that registers as the character’s defining trait.

A young music student beckoned home from the swinging city to sleepy Connecticut to help care for her elderly dad, Vicki has good reason to feel blindsided by her sudden, obligatory move back into her parents’ house. Her stroke-fallen dad, Carmine (Robert Vaughn, in his final screen role), requires around-the-clock care, and her mom, Deanne (Catherine Curtin), and half-sister, Maria (Anna Garduño), bicker constantly. Vicki’s left feeling lost and rudderless, flirting with the possibility of cheating on her boyfriend (Max Rhyser) with a friendly local, Chris (Jacob Heimer), whom she meets at the hospital.

So consumed by what she’s going through, Vicki barely acknowledges Chris’ fear of losing the grandfather he visits in the hospital daily, or her mom Deanne’s fear of losing the husband she attends to so lovingly. Likewise, the film, entirely consumed by Vicki’s angst, allows the supporting characters barely a shred of space to exist beyond her orbit. Carmine might be unable to walk, or speak, or bathe and feed himself, but what about Vicki and her pain, every scene seems to ask.

Although the character’s self-centeredness is leavened by a scintilla of self-awareness, Gold Star beats too deliberate a path towards Vicki’s inevitable awakening. And along the way, the bare-bones production design and point-and-shoot photography add practically no visual interest to the extended takes of small talk, or contemplative close-ups of the film’s star. The onus is fully on the script and performances to carve out Vicki’s world with color and dimension, and, fortunately, Negri does elicit strong work from her cast, particularly Garduño and Vaughn, who delivers a poignant, mostly silent portrayal of a spirited fellow trapped inside a failing body.

As for Negri in the lead, composer Ben Levin’s lachrymose piano score is more emotive, so it’s difficult to engage with the character’s inner struggle as she progresses, less by virtue of active change than by simply ceasing to be a brat. Bad things happen to Vicki, and finally something happens that motivates her to show concern for others. Thus, the movie crosses some imperceptible threshold, Vicki gets mad and jogs the pain away.

Within a quick couple of scenes, she matures from yelling, “I’m going through so much shit right now,” to gently affirming, “You’re going through a lot more than I am right now.” Writer-director Negri hardly makes Vicki’s arduous trip from A to B worthwhile, but at least Vicki makes it. Some selfish characters never do.

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