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Director: Odin Ozdil
Writer: Odin Ozdil
Stars: Elizabeth Dominguez, A Martinez, Michael Ironside, Rutina Wesley, Erick Avari
The housing market crash of 2008 affected the lives of millions of homeowners across the country and has become the subject of numerous documentaries and even an Academy Award nominated film (The Big Short, 2015). Most of these movies deal with the corporate side, showing us the breakdown from those on the inside. With California Winter, the story is instead focused on one family and the rippling effects of how the crumbling system ruined so many lives.
The story starts in 2005. Clara Morales (Elizabeth Dominguez) is new on the job at Hariri Realty, but gets her first sale fast and secures herself as a reliable agent, even if it leaves a sour taste in the mouth of a fellow, more seasoned realtor. She soon earns her place and moves up the ranks. Meanwhile, her father needs help with the family home as his wife (Clara’s mother) is stricken with terminal cancer. She advices a loan but a few years later it goes defunct and he ends up owing tens of thousands of dollars and at risk of foreclosure. He blames his daughter after she initially tries to hide it and take care of it by herself. She meets a young man at a refinancing institution, and the two hit it off as they try to find a way to fix her problem and maintain a relationship. It’s not easy. Meanwhile, Sheriff Hillman (Michael Ironside) has the punishing task of carrying out evictions, some to people he’s known for many years.
Clara is a naive young woman when the story starts, lulled by the money and power her job offers, not above some small backstabbing to get herself ahead. That’s business. This, unfortunately is also a lesson she learns herself when things beyond her control come down hard upon her and her father.
California Winter is set mostly in a Latino community and is a mixed language production using both Spanish and English. It centers on Clara but it’s her peripheral that is just as compelling. The couple she first sold a home too is victim to the crisis and so too is a woman (Rutina Wesley) whose husband is serving in Afghanistan. Through Sheriff Hillman, we meet others as well, once comfortable, good people, now forced from their homes (sometimes squatting in property they once owned) with no place to go but to shelters and churches. These paint the bigger picture and give the edges of Clara’s story more depth.
One of the better attributes of director Odin Ozdil‘s first feature length film is the absence of violence, something that, given the setting, many filmmakers would unjustly give too much weight. This mostly Latino community is not populated by roving gangs of archetypical criminals and filled with Hollywood race clichés. Instead, we meet regular people who are overwhelmed by a corrupt system that constantly changes the rules with deceptive practices, making the unseen corporate banks the real thugs of the story.
The low-budget film feels almost like a documentary, shot like a television movie, and while that might test one’s immediate resolve to give it investment, it’s not long before the story and the character’s keep it propelling forward. Dominguez does a good job playing the conflicted daughter in over her head, but lacks the final emotional punch her arc needs. Still, she shines in a lot of good moments but because of the script is forced to be dour throughout. In a few nice moments, she is lightened by Clara’s romance, and we see a side that should have gotten a bit more attention. A Martinez, playing her father, is very strong, and so is Wesley, who creates a powerfully watchable character whose fate is heartbreaking. Ironside is excellent in support, giving a few precious scenes that he handles with just the right tone. Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) shows up for short bit, filmed before her current success.
While filmed in 2012, California Winter is finally getting distribution and coming to iTunes and VUDU on May 31, 2016. It’s well worth checking out and makes for a nice companion double feature with The Big Short.