As Star Maps opens, Carlos (Douglas Spain) is on a bus heading from Mexico to Los Angeles when suddenly his fellow passengers recognize him. They gravitate toward him, asking for autographs as their faces morph into masks of adoration.
Then, in a flash, that scene is gone: Carlos sits as anonymous as his fellow passengers, remembering his vivid daydream. Is he just another actor hoping to beat the massive odds and become a movie star in Hollywood? He is, but as Star Maps soon makes clear, any indignities and humiliations Carlos may encounter pale beside the very specific hell of his own family.
Writer-director Miguel Arteta, ignoring the politically correct dictate that calls for only positive images of an underrepresented minority, has created a supremely troubled Chicano family headed by Pepe (Efrain Figueroa), the much-feared patriarch, a brutally effective manipulator and pimp. In a sad family tradition, Pepe makes Carlos into "a man" by selling his body to both men and women while vaguely promising introductions to show business connections.
Pepe dominates everyone else with equal skill. Carlos' emotionally fragile mother (Martha Velez) and his casually cruel, overweight, dim-bulb brother, Juancito (Vincent Chandler) retreat into elaborate fantasy worlds, while his angry and protective sister, Maria (musician Lysa Flores, who compiled the superb sound track), seethes with resentment.
But this dysfunctional family exists very much in the shadow of the famous Hollywood sign, affected by its elusive promise of wealth and glamour. The hustlers who work for Pepe have an ingenious front -- selling maps to the stars' homes -- and things come to a head between father and son when Carlos becomes the favorite boy toy of a soap opera actress who may be the ticket to his dreams.
Miguel Arteta's highly ambitious debut film blends comedy, fantasy, melodrama and tragedy into a potent but not always successful concoction. Rapid shifts in tone are sometimes disorienting and the performances are sometimes more enthusiastic than skillful.
Idiosyncratic and lyrical, tender and cynical, Star Maps manages to show both the easy path to massive self-delusion and its bitter consequences.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.