With his 1992 breakthrough In the Soup, director Alexandre Rockwell became a founder of what would soon be recognized as a new era of American independent film, along with Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and others. Rockwell made five (mostly poorly received) films over the next 20 years, and he publicly (and understandably) lamented the loss of the freewheeling years before an entire industry sprung up around indie film.
Made in collaboration with his children Lana and Nico (ages 8 and 4 respectively at the time), the free-spirited and organic Little Feet takes Rockwell back to his roots as a scrappy, seat-of-his-pants filmmaker. He assembled a ragtag crew of nonprofessionals and shot almost entirely on black-and-white 16-millimeter film, much of which came in the form of leftover stock donated by filmmaker friends. There's refreshingly little concern for the resulting variations in film grain, which add a homespun quality that suits the story perfectly — as does a soundtrack that ranges from Canned Heat to Sigur Ros.
That story is credited to "Lana and Dad" and involves two kids (also named Lana and Nico) who've recently lost their mother and are saddled with a despondent and largely absent father (played by Rockwell). With their new friend Nene (Rene Cuante-Bautista), the kids set out on a symbolic journey across downtown Los Angeles to find a river in which to set free a pet goldfish, which has recently lost its companion.
There's no shortage of films attempting to capture the wonder of early childhood, but Little Feet succeeds largely by allowing imaginative and engaging kids to do their thing (within pre-set parameters) as the camera rolls. The story seems to unfold entirely from a child's perspective in a place where anything is possible and adventure is always close at hand. It's a beautiful and deeply personal film that manages to turn its humble origins into a primary asset.
The kids' pint-sized road trip also reveals a downtrodden Los Angeles rarely depicted on film, and one that's fraught with danger for three children wandering the streets alone. The protective shield of innocence can only take them so far. But resilience — along with reliance on whatever family one can cobble together — is what Little Feet is about.
There's a touch of magical realism to Little Feet that recalls Beasts of the Southern Wild. That may be one reason why the 62-minute Little Feet is being distributed theatrically on a double bill with the 12-minute Boneshaker, which stars Beasts' Quvenzhane Wallis. A student film by Ghanian filmmaker Frances Bodomo, Boneshaker brings a displaced family from Ghana to the bayous of southeast Louisiana in search of a church that may cure their troubled child (Wallis) of the bad spirit inside her. Finely crafted and atmospheric, the film packs a lot of ideas into a small space and bodes well for Bodomo's budding career as a writer-director. Wallis' outsized screen presence comes through once more, seemingly independent of setting or subject matter.