There's no question that Where God Left His Shoes contains its fair share of cliches; it also skirts dangerously close to sentimentality. But writer/producer/director Salvatore Stabile, who made his debut feature Gravesend when he was just 19, keeps his second film on track and ultimately delivers a work which is authentically heartwarming - an achievement which cannot be under-rated in a culture today which is drenched in cheap sentiment and ready saccharine.
The young film-maker, who has been working mainly in TV since Gravesend came out a decade ago, sets himself a grandiose task - to tell a Capra-esque Christmas fable about a young homeless family trying to get out of the shelter and into housing on Christmas Eve. He largely succeeds thanks to some memorable performances from his cast and, what Capra would never have done, by refusing to succumb to fantasy or easy dream fulfilment.
Backed by Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions under its new low-budget scheme which also spawned Hard Candy and Bickford Shmeckler's Cool Ideas, the film deserves further exposure after its recent Tribeca Film Festival world premiere and should find a distribution home in North America.
International sales are more likely as a seasonal TV item than as a theatrical release, although the presence of John Leguizamo and Leonor Varela will help in Latin territories.
To say that the film is a downer about homeless people is to miss the point. Stabile focuses affectionately on his four main characters - Frank Diaz (Leguizamo), his wife Angela (Varela), his stepson Justin (Castro) and his daughter Christina (Rose) - and works up a rapport between them which is honest, tender and touching. Their unit forms the basis of the film, and if their quest for a home fails, their success remains in staying together.
There are whispers of a Ken Loach influence in Stabile's portrait of well-intentioned people falling foul of a system weighted against them. In this case the guy who can't escape the place society has allotted for him is Frank, a former professional boxer who has thrown in the towel at a big fight and consequently lost his job at the local gym.
Before long, he can't afford to pay the bills, the family is evicted from its Queens apartment and forced to move into a homeless shelter. After a few months during which he works off the books for a local construction firm, they are given great news on Christmas Eve. A nearby housing estate has an apartment available immediately and they can move in that very day. The only snag, however, is that Frank needs a job on the books in order to qualify.
While Angela and Christina stay in the shelter excitedly packing their possessions in the firm belief that they are moving out, Frank and ten year-old Justin head to Manhattan to find a job for Frank by the end of the day. But that is easier said than done. Not only is Frank illiterate and has two years of jailtime on his record but most businesses are not looking to hire, especially around the holiday.
The bulk of the film consists of the trek around New York City as Frank and Justin lose one opportunity after another. The fact that the production was shot entirely around the city (even at tourist magnet The Rockefeller Center) in peak pre-Christmas shopping period lends enormous authenticity to the drama.
Leguizamo has never been better, conveying the optimism and simplicity of the man without rendering him stupid; his scenes with the superbly natural child actor David Castro (a veteran of five movies including Palindromes and A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints) are the film's best.
Perhaps the film's biggest accomplishment is to portray so effectively - and far more effectively than last year's The Pursuit Of Happyness - the day-today realities of homelessness. The gnawing hunger of the children, the petty thefts and crimes which all four members of the family start committing, the ease with which dignity goes by the wayside when money is short and father and son engage in a stint of begging.
The title refers to the new apartment which the family want to move into. 'It's not where God left his shoes, but it'll do,' says Frank.
William Morris Independent
Paul G Allen