Slums of Beverly Hills



There's a lovely little coming-of-age film called "Slums of Beverly Hills," that I think you owe it to yourself to see. It was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, who developed it at the Sundance film workshop. It’s about a Jewish family -- father, two sons, and a daughter, in the summer of 1976, as he races them madly from one cheesy apartment to another, just ahead of a succession of angry landlords, because he’s broke and can’t pay the rent, but he does it so his kids can have a Beverly Hills address and go to good schools.

The father is a salesman, played by Alan Arkin, now sixty five both in real life and in the film -- a man who once had money, owned a restaurant, and in a searing flashback saw his manager try to rob him. We don’t learn what happened or why, but his wife is gone, and he lives off his rich brother’s largesse, who makes him pay in humiliations for every dollar. The one thing he’s held onto is his Cadillac, into which he piles the family every time they have to sneak out in the middle of the night.

The one who tells the story is the daughter, Vivian, who’s played by Natasha Lyonne. She’s just turned fifteen and is confronted with humiliation and embarrassment at every possible opportunity, from the size of her breasts to hearing her father call black waiters "Jackson." This film could be a tragedy but it’s a comedy, because with only a few exceptions everyone in the film is a good person, and they truly do love each other.

Vivian meets the young neighbor, also Jewish, who just happens to be a dope dealer who wears Charles Manson tee shirts, but who is a kind and reasonably mature guy and the right person for Vivian to choose to lose her virginity to. Did I mention that she’s also saddled with her cousin, the rich uncle’s daughter, played by Marisa Tomei, who’s just out of detox and on her way to nursing school if only she can hold it together long enough to get there, who teaches Vivian about vibrators, and who shares a secret pig-latin kind of language with Vivian that they haul out at appropriate moments.

Slums of Beverly Hills is not a perfect film by any means, but it takes what could have been a shallow little slapstick comedy, or a pathetic soap opera, and makes it into a witty if uncomfortable look at how close we all are to death by embarrassment.

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