Working without much of a budget or the comfort of a studio, the New York City drama “Don’t Let Me Drown” manages to pull off one of the most harrowing depictions of a post-9/11 world I’ve seen to date. Using disquieting images of ashes, the anguish of lost loved ones, and the confusion of a wounded city, the film evokes the fragile days that followed the terrorist attacks with heartbreaking, often chilling execution. There’s a love story wedged in here too, but that only gets in the way.
Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) is a teenager coming to terms with the events of September 11th, 2001, watching as his father suffers through a job cleaning up ground zero, returning home nightly with escalating medical complications. Through his best friend, Lalo meets Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa), a feisty young woman who lost her sister in the World Trade Center. Unable to come to grips with the reality of the death, Stefanie finds comfort in Lalo, while her abusive father rejects her efforts to develop a relationship with the eager boy.
A simplistic web of forbidden love, “Don’t Let Me Drown” is communicated with a fitting streetwise attitude. Director Cruz Angeles keeps his camera tight on his actors, allowing the austere NYC climate (which includes enough profanity to make “Harlem Nights” blush) to create a mood of apprehension and friendship where the micro-budget cannot reach. A character drama, the picture is best served by the ensemble, who find adequate spaces of reflection to feel out not only a world gone mad (right in their backyard), but the trouble of an interracial relationship that deeply concerns both sets of parents.
The melodrama runs thick in the picture, which eventually wiggles out of Angeles’s control. The filmmaker is best articulating the ambiance of the city, allowing the characters to absorb the gravity of the terrorist event; a fresh wound that demands the comfort of others, making for a sincere theme of unity that Angeles should’ve locked down as the core of his story. He has something here with ideas of ground zero cleanup involving illegal immigrants, the casual attitude to frightening remnants of death, and the heart-wrenching ache of sudden loss. The rest of the film, with its watered down teen yearning and slang-happy language, just pales by comparison.
Screenplay 101 itches consume the picture in the last act, when torrent of trouble rain down upon the couple, including a ridiculous scene that pits Stefanie against the advances of a lecherous family friend. “Don’t Let Me Drown” didn’t need to complicate matters to achieve an emotional purge. Generating enough gravitas to spare just by inhaling on hallowed ground, the eventual desperation slaughters any lasting effect.