It is difficult sometimes to fathom how, particularly in 1980s America, there was ever such thing as a criminal “underworld”. With such flagrant displays of wealth, egregious disregard for discretion, and scant concern for lawfulness, “overworld” may have been a more apposite expression. Reverentially mapping the narrative trajectories of popular gangster-police procedurals such as Miami Vice [USA, 1984-89], To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, USA, 1985] and (mostly clearly) Scarface [Brian De Palma, USA, 1983], there is a sagacious awareness that infuses this stylishly tantalising drama from director, Chelsey d’Adesky.
Much like Brian De Palma, d’Adesky is adept at deconstructing narrative tropes and reconstructing them with a kind of metatextual irony, producing an amalgamation of pop-cultural expressions filtered through a unique and original lens. Foreshadowing the central motif of the film, a fashion poster on the central character’s bedroom wall emblazoned with the name ‘Tabitha’ appears like a slanted reference to the short-lived 70s sitcom of the same name, (itself a spin-off of Bewitched [USA, 1964-72]), in which the eponymous witch casts magic and courts mischief with a simple wiggle of the nose.
The film, set in 1984 Miami, centres around Ava (Jenny Watwood), an ambitious, beautiful, but ultimately naïve student, who finds herself very quickly sucked into the heart of a powerful cartel. Ava’s world seems doomed from the outset, as her “coolest” friend Lyla (Katie Luddy) – “the most mature, the first to make out” – introduces her to new Colombian friend, Dany (Nicholas Sellar), by way of a party. Much to the concern of Ava’s similarly guileless father, and spurred on by Lyla, the two girls attend the glamorous and sun-drenched mansion and Dany’s home. The party, awash with colour, champagne and cocaine, is a far cry from Ava’s old-fashioned Lebanese upbringing, a hedonistic paradise with which Ava becomes easily enamoured.
Before long, she has moved in with Dany, enjoying all the highs that wealth, fashion, and drug abuse can afford, questioning nothing until she experiences her first of many coke-induced nosebleeds. As the severity of her epistaxis increases, so does the sense that the world around her will eventually come crashing down. Where there was once romance, unwavering trust, and happiness, there is now infidelity, jealousy and frequent absences. During one of Dany’s “work” trips to the Bahamas, and whilst visiting her parents' home, Ava receives a phone call from a federal agent, and here the penny finally drops.
Chi Chi is a slick and efficient drama, lacquered with the requisite visual sheen for a story of this sort. Shot on 16mm colour stock, the film has the necessary grainy quality to provide a seedy edge to the surface glamour that the criminal world brings with it. Paired with an electro-synth and disco-fuelled soundtrack, the film’s tropical, Day-Glo mise-en-scene casts a keen, postmodern eye upon this period and place with authentic rigour. Watwood’s central performance is engaging and believable, despite the speed in which her character arc develops. Based on a true story, it is easy to treat this film as a chapter within a much grander tapestry and, provided with enough backstory, Chi Chi could work well as a feature. As a standalone fifteen-minute short, it works incredibly well to chart the dizzying highs and empty lows of a life in crime.
'Chi Chi' is coming soon to FLTV.