Writer-director Gil Cates Jr. has done it the hard way. He's made his feature debut with "$pent," a straightforward, serious drama, though edged with humor, instead of either a trendy neo-noir or a gross-out comedy.
He focuses on a group of L.A. twentysomethings, each in a chronic state of denial that is escalating rapidly into full-scale self-destruction.
The film's key figure is Max (Jason London), a wannabe actor caught in the grip of high-stakes sports gambling. He shares a well-appointed, vintage Spanish-style house with his girlfriend, Brigette (Charlie Spradling), herself slipping deeper into alcoholism, and an uptight friend, Grant (James Parks), who's gay but doesn't want to admit it, least of all to himself.
Max and Brigette have made a pact that they will swear off their addictions just as Max's pal Doug (Phill Lewis) has hatched a desperate scheme to get a script he has written, apparently with Max's help, into the hands of Jack Nicholson. It's just the sort of venture guaranteed to endanger the house of cards in which Max, Brigette and Grant are existing.
"$pent" has the conviction you would expect from the son of a Hollywood veteran (producer-director Gilbert Cates, who has a cameo, along with Barbara Barrie, as Max's wealthy parents). Indeed, Max et al are all too believable, and to his credit Cates concentrates on gradually pulling us into their collective self-delusion without asking us to like them, yet endowing them with a capacity for emotional response that allows us to identify with them.
"$pent" builds steadily and surely through increasing tension and deeply felt portrayals, especially on the part of London and Spradling, whose roles are substantial and demanding. Cates wisely doesn't lay on exposition; Max says it all when he remarks in passing that he attributes his attraction to gambling for a "need to feel something real." Surely, Max's troubles only exacerbate Brigette's drinking, which was problematic even before she met him.
As for Grant, it seems something of a throwback that a contemporary L.A. character would consider being gay a fate worse than death.
Otherwise "$pent" is well-paced and solidly crafted. While Cates was better off not overreaching on his first feature, he needs to develop a more effective visual style. As script-driven as it is, "$pent" nevertheless develops considerable impact.
$pent, 2000. Unrated. A Regent Entertainment presentation of a Trademark Entertainment presentation of a THF Pictures production. Writer-director Gil Cates Jr. Producers Rana Joy Glickman, Jordan Summers and Cates. Executive producers Joe Cates, Jordon Zevon. Cinematographer Robert D. Tomer. Editor Jonathan Cates. Music Stan Ridgway. Costumes Mimi Maxmen. Production designer Aaron Osborne. Art director Kristen Gilmartin. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Jason London as Max. Charlie Spradling as Brigette. Phill Lewis as Doug. James Parks as Grant.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun