NEW YORK TIMES Dave Kehr - March 22, 2002
ROWDY SINGLE MOTHERS LINE UP AT THE BAR
The rock 'n' roll moms - their arms tattooed, their midriffs bare, their long legs encased in tight, black leather pants - gather most afternoons at the tables in front of an anonymous bar in a bohemian quarter of Brooklyn. With their children bouncing in their laps or snoozing in their strollers, the women - once aspiring artists, actresses or musicians - rowdily debate the state of their lives over brightly tinted margaritas, only $2 each between 4 and 6.
Ilya Chaiken's "Margarita Happy Hour," which opens today at Cinema Village (22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village), is an independent feature with sure sociological instincts. Here is one substratum of New York society that has not previously been documented - the single mothers, whose decision not to terminate unplanned pregnancies have left them facing the unexpected end of their lives of impulse and irresponsibility.
Several of Ms. Chaiken's characters find themselves alone, abandoned by the men who fathered their children and disappeared back into the bar and party scene. But Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins), who becomes the film's central figure, enjoys the mixed blessing of having her man, Max (Larry Fessenden), right on hand.
A failed novelist with a drinking problem - "He thinks he's Jack Kerouac," sneers one of Zelda's friends - Max has remained with Zelda and their tiny daughter (whom they call Little Z), though less out of a sense of responsibility than sheer passivity. As played by Mr. Fessenden (the gifted director of "Habit" and the recent "Wendigo"), Max is an overgrown child himself, given to excessive oral gratification and poor impulse control.
Much of "Margarita Happy Hour," which Ms. Chaiken wrote and directed, is devoted to group-dialogue scenes, in which the women (including Barbara Sicuranza, Amanda Vogel, Macha Ross and Kristin Dispaltro) boozily debate their Medicaid problems and the limited romantic possibilities available to women with young children.
A whiff of plot surfaces when Max finds himself attracted to Natali (Holly Ramos), Zelda's lover in her younger days and a recovering junkie who has moved in with Max and Zelda to recuperate.
But Ms. Chaiken isn't much interested in melodramatic plot developments. Her talent lies in an evocative, accurate observation of a distinctive milieu and in the lively, convincing dialogue she creates for her characters. Zelda repeatedly complains that she is living in a circle, with no line of development in her life. It is a sense the film captures wonderfully, if depressingly, well, at least up until an escapist climax that seems as emotionally necessary as it is dramatically arbitrary.
VILLAGE VOICE - March 20, 2002
"Rich with gratifyingly nontoxic local color, Margarita Happy Hour casts an empathic eye on late-twentysomething Brooklynites set apart from their art-damaged boho milieu by motherhood. Hardly the ethno-culinary niche entry its title might suggest, Ilya Chaiken's wry feature debut centers on Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins), an erstwhile party rat and aspiring illustrator with a two-year-old and a good-at-heart fuckup boyfriend (Wendigo director Larry Fessenden) increasingly prone to boozing and tantrums. Chaiken ably balances real-time rhythms with propulsive incident, just as she contrasts bland-storefront patches of Brooklyn with the busy Billburgian kitsch of the scenesters' lofts and warehouse bashes. She catches subtler interior strains, too: the boredom and confinement that can gnaw at even the most loving mothers, and the knotty, resentful symbiosis of a relationship that holds together for all the wrong reasons."
"Ilya Chaiken's MARGARITA HAPPY HOUR is probably the best film to come out of New York's East Village filmmaking community since Larry Fessenden's HABIT. Fessenden also happens to act in the movie (delivering a genuine performance), along with Eleanor Hutchins, who gives a complexity and beauty to the film's protagonist, Zelda, a young mother growing out of her bohemian surroundings."
NY NEWSDAY John Anderson - March 22, 2002
ROCKERS WITH CRADLES, OR HOW TO STAY HIP WITH A KID ON YOUR KNEE
Life on the edge gets edgier after Brooklyn bohemians have babies. Smart, funny, knowing and well- acted, especially by leads Eleanor Hutchins and Larry Fessenden. With Holly Ramos, Jonah Leland, Barbara Sicuranza, Amanda Vogel, Macha Ross, Kristin Dispaltro. Written and directed by Ilya Chaiken.
A FEW YEARS AGO, in the Bronx, the already dubious sleep of a dubious block was interrupted by firefighters in the street, spraying water under a van. It seems that the vehicle's incessant, all-night performance of the Car-Alarm Quartet (WHOOWHOO- eee-eee-OINKOINK-hehheh) had driven some sleepless tenant to place an accelerant under the vehicle, in a felonious effort to set the thing on fire.
The principals of "Margarita Happy Hour" aren't pyromaniacs, just beleaguered mothers trying to live the same rock-and-adrenaline lifestyle they enjoyed before their babies made loud music and loud people so much less amusing. And as they push their strollers through the streets of Brooklyn, bellowing in unison their impersonation of the most annoying car alarm ever created, we get a pretty classic picture of wilting youth, grace under pressure, the indifference of the world and the tenacity of mothers.
Ilya Chaiken's debut directing effort does carry a title that's a trifle off- putting: another frivolous bar comedy? No. The movie possesses plenty of humor, but "Margarita Happy Hour" isn't so much about drinking as it is about the hour: the one hour a day when women like Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins) can relax with their friends over $2 cocktails and commiserate about Medicaid, men and the darlings under the table - before heading back to their communal lofts, harried lives and lack of SUVs, HMOs or TLC.
Hutchins, who looks like a cross between Courteney Cox and Amanda Peet, gives a thoroughly convincing performance as Zelda, who, between tending to Little Z (Jonah Leland) and maintaining an uneasy peace with her boyfriend, Max (Larry Fessenden), supports herself and her child as a freelance illustrator for porn magazines. Max's priorities seem to be drug-dealing, fistfighting, drinking and his little family, in that order, and Fessenden, the director of such first-rate independents as "Habit" and "Wendigo," does a terrific job of making Max both sympathetic (why else would Zelda love him?) and a rank reprobate who has all the right instincts but finds the strength to fight them every step of the way.
Chaiken is on very delicate ground with "Margarita Happy Hour," the plot of which is essentially about the question of parental irresponsibility. But it's entirely engaging and true. Her Altmanesque coordination of the various strands of dialogue generated during happy hour is brilliant; the movie's various travels through time - back and forth to Zelda's pre- and post-pregnant lives, and such friends as the doomed junkie Natali (a terrific Holly Ramos) - are executed effortlessly. "Margarita Happy Hour" probably won't do much to increase the birth rate, but its portrait of a very unsung sector of society is refreshingly honest and entertaining.
NY POST By Megan Turner - March 22, 2002
WASTIN' IN SINGLE MAMA-VILLE
Cheers to a truly authentic indie. Running time: 98 minutes. Not rated (nudity, language).
IF the slap-happy gals of "Sex and the City" were suddenly stripped of their fabulosity, they might just find themselves huddled around the table at an el cheapo Brooklyn cafe gulping half-price margaritas while their offspring burped and dribbled and cried.
The weekly rendezvous of the title is the centerpiece of writer-director Ilya Chaiken's assured feature debut, "Margarita Happy Hour," which takes a tough-love look at the lives of five hipster women whose hedonistic late twenties have been rudely interrupted by single motherhood.
The riot grrrl quintet meets regularly to dish gossip, bitch about Medicaid and reassure one another that their fun and rebellious days are not fully departed.
The film's heroine is Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins), a former party girl who works as a "freelance illustrator" (she draws nudes for a porno mag) while she struggles to raise her toddler daughter, Little Z (the adorable Jonah Leland).
She gets no help from the little one's affable but irresponsible father Max (Larry Fessenden), a Jack Kerouac wannabe who spends his days in a directionless mess of brawling and drinking.
And she has no energy left over to prop up her fragile and trippy friend Natali (Holly Ramos), who seeks sanctuary in the Brooklyn loft Zelda and Max share with seven hard-partying burnouts.
Hutchins, who looks remarkably like Courteney Cox, is a bright new talent, spunky and engaging, and she's supported by a lively cast that imbues Brooklyn's underground art scene with veracity and vitality.
A hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Chaiken's film is, at once, a joyful celebration of female friendship and an unusually honest look at newly responsible young women wistfully saying goodbye to the dreams of their youth.
PAPER MAGAZINE April, 2002
Independent writer/director Ilya Chaiken tells a story of the alternately surly and charismatic Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins), an young unwed mother living in Brooklyn. Zelda and her troupe of friends (more unwed mothers) meet for drinks in between dealing with their loser roommates, struggling with poverty, and plotting ways to escape the city. Horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden is great as Zelda's loser boyfriend. Call it the anti-Friends: Chaiken's world of depressed, semi-hip white people are hot on the trail of becoming old, semi-trashy white people. They're also a good reminder of what the world might look like after you're finished partying and sitting in bars in five years.
NY FREE PRESS Matt Zoller Seitz
Stiff drink: Margarita Happy Hour isnÍt stylistically inventive enough to stand out from other realistic urban dramas, but genre is represented onscreen so rarely that a good example deserves to be seen. Director Ilya Chaiken explores a subculture I havenÍt seen represented on film beforeÜhard-living urban boho women whoÍve decided to have kids, and are having trouble reconciling their newfound motherhood with their lifestyle. While the performances vary widely in quality, and the finale strikes me as kind of a sellout, itÍs a smart, heartfelt, well-photographed and excitingly designed film, with a standout performance by Larry Fessenden (director of Wendigo) as a substance-abusing writer who's stayed with his girlfriend (Eleanor Hutchins) not because he really wants to, but because he feels it's expected of him.
TVGUIDE.COM Maitland McDonagh
Loosely structured but sharply observed, this darkly comic drama revolves around a group of not-as-young-as-they-once-were scene makers trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of motherhood and a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle. Various feckless lovers have decamped or been given the heave-ho, leaving these one-time riot grrrls holding the baby bag; in one of the film's many throwaway ironies, the only married mom in the bunch may have to divorce her blue-collar husband to qualify their ailing baby for affordable health care. Dressed like glam-punk sex kittens, they gather at the same local Mexican restaurant they frequented as unattached party girls, gossiping, trading tips about social services and sucking up $2.00 happy-hour margaritas while their toddlers romp underfoot. The group's center is Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins), an artist who shares a rambling Brooklyn loft with seven roommates, including boyfriend Max (Larry Fessenden), an underemployed writer whose ambivalence about fatherhood has strained their relationship. Zelda and her friends, Graziella (Barbara Sicuranza), Raquel (Amanda Vogel), Sofia (Macha Ross) and Marie (Kristin Dispaltro) are suspended in various stages of willingness to negotiate entirely new self-images and build the lives to suit them. Further complicating Zelda's life is the arrival of best friend Natali (Holly Ramos), fresh out of rehab and hoping for a fresh start, but ripe for relapse. Fragile and directionless Natali needs more attention than Zelda has left to give after long days of looking after her daughter, Little Z (Jonah Leland); negotiating freelance jobs (like a gig drawing busty ladies for Screw); and wrangling with Medicaid. Meanwhile, some of the happy-hour regulars have pooled their resources to buy a house upstate; there's still time for Zelda to join them if she's willing to kiss her New York life goodbye. Written and directed by Ilya Chaiken, herself a single mother, the film's ensemble portrait of women caught between nostalgia for the tough and free-spirited babes they were (however much that freedom may have been illusory) and uncertainty about what their futures hold is almost painfully on target. And while the film's men are generally given short shrift, Fessenden's Max is a complex tangle of contradictory impulses, alternately protective and reckless, simultaneously devoted and irresponsible. The scene in which he almost picks up a woman in a bar, then sabotages his own opportunistic lechery by pulling out a photo of Zelda and Little Z, is a small, poignant gem.
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