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Star Izzo captures things about Celina 'that make her a heroine very worth rooting for'

This is part of a series of articles on the 2021 Portland Film Festival. Click here for more coverage.

COURTESY PHOTO: LOOK AT THE MOON PICTURES - Women Is Losers, the opening movie of the Portland Film Festival, features Lorenza Izzo (middle) as a Catholic school girl who dreams of career, college and romance, but she faces challenges in reaching such goals.The Portland Film Festival is here. This annual event provides a chance to explore independent films that fight to find an audience, even though they often deserve it most.

The festival will feature tracks of stories from various communities that have been historically marginalized or silenced. The purpose is to lift voices from those communities — women, Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQIA+. The festival will be virtual, accessible — and rich with good stories. 

The opening night film is "Women is Losers." This is Lissette Feliciano's inaugural, feature-length directing effort about the travails of a young Latina in 1960s and 1970s San Francisco.

Chilean actress, Lorenza Izzo (memorable as Leonardo DiCaprio's Italian starlet wife in the largely forgettable "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood"), stars as Celina. She is a promising student at a Catholic high school who dreams of college and a career but also of romance with her soldier boyfriend, Mateo.

Celina doesn't live in a world that sets her up to succeed on any of those fronts. Lacking much in the way of resources, family support or sex education, her life predictably derails from there. 

From its opening frame, "Women Is Losers," borrowing from Janis Joplin's song of the same title, recognizes that Celina's life isn't the type of life that would occupy much screen attention. The centerstage would more likely go toward Mateo and his blond future paramour, and Celina would merely be the loser in the background.

But this film invests in Celina's journey. She is the young single mother trying to scrap her way to an independent life at a time when an unmarried working woman needed her unemployed dad to co-sign for her to rent an apartment. This takes place at a time when people could overtly enact policies against extending home loans to women and Mexicans, and when low-wage work was a brown woman's only real option, no matter how brilliant she was. 

COURTESY PHOTO: LOOK AT THE MOON PICTURES - Simu Liu (left), who is currently starring in Marvel show Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, plays a bank supervisor trying to help out Celina (Lorenza Izzo, left) in Women Is Losers.Director Feliciano, inspired by conversations with her own mother, wants us to grapple with the unrelenting barriers facing women of color at the time. As the story unfolds, we can connect those barriers to the struggles faced by women and people of color today. She wants us to see that being smart doesn't serve Celina the way it would if she were a white man. She ends up using her intelligence largely to navigate the incessant obstacles of unhappy and oppressed parents, dismissive and unhelpful advice that fails to account for her actual options. She must persevere, despite her low wages for long hours, sexism, racism and the nonsense men are taught about what they have a right to expect from women. 

Feliciano's aims are ambitious and fall into predictable pitfalls — structural barriers are extremely hard to depict without oversimplifying, turning characters into two-dimensional heroes and villains.  Feliciano's approach is to embrace the struggle by occasionally breaking the fourth wall and having her characters connect the dots directly for the audience. This artifice is meant to underline what she wants us to see. A route to bypass the bafflement that often accompanies the actual experience of being gaslit by a system or a person wielding structural power. 

The result can at times feel a bit too on-the-nose, that doesn't always support the complexity that Feliciano is hoping for. She is helped, however, by some inventive storytelling that embraces its moments of artificiality. The film also prevails due to good work from her cast, especially Izzo, who packs each moment on screen with intention that makes you forgive the occasional clunky dialogue.

Izzo captures things about Celina that make her a heroine worth rooting for — the stolid way she handles even moments of despair, her resourcefulness, the energy she finds in moments of exhaustion. There are also fine portrayals made here from Steven Bauer as her bitter misogynist father and Alejandra Miranda as her beleaguered mother. Simu Liu (currently starring in Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings") appears as a bank supervisor who offers Celina an opportunity and coaching for an unnamed price.

The theatre-like staginess often does serve the material — Feliciano manages to illuminate connections that don't receive enough attention and affords dignity and respect to a sort of heroism that is too often unnamed and devalued.

The film will cultivate the sort of curiosity and respect that deepen conversation across generations and illuminate the abundant work that remains.

Portland Film Festival

When: Oct. 6-Nov. 8

Where: Visit the Portland Film Festival website or say "Portland Film Festival" into your Comcast Xfinity voice remote.

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