By Victor Payan
It takes exactly 42 seconds to realize that Destin Daniel Cretton’s standout debut feature, “I Am Not a Hipster,” is a San Diego film. That’s when the Casbah’s iconic black upholstered backdrop comes into view. It’s also when you realize that the music is going to be good, and the film is not going to be about hipsters.
Set in and around the vibrant North Park indie music and art scene, “I Am Not a Hipster” is scheduled to return to its home community for a week of screenings April 5-11 at the Media Arts Center San Diego’s new Digital Gym Cinema, located at 2921 El Cajon Blvd.
This heartfelt feature, which premiered to capacity screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of singer-songwriter Brook Hyde, an Ohio transplant who has developed a loyal following in the San Diego music scene.
Played with depth and complexity by Dominic Bogart, Brook’s outlook is darkened by tragedy, and while this fuels his music, it also causes him to lash out at those closest to him and at people whose work he feels is meaningless.
The film follows a week in Brook’s life, when he must confront his own grief and make peace with his family, who are coming to San Diego to scatter his mother’s ashes into the sea.
Originally from Hawaii, writer/director Cretton is a graduate of SDSU’s Department of Theater, Television and Film. Living in San Diego for more than a decade, Cretton succeeds in creating an honest and authentic portrait of an important local subculture. He also adeptly captures the camaraderie of a young community keenly involved in celebrating life and sincerely interested in creating works of artistic value.
This is not a community of entitled trust-fund teens, but instead of serious friends, students and creators who pay as much attention to the beer they brew as to the songs they record.
Even Brook’s best friend Clarke, clearly aware of his own artistic limitations, is struggling to produce something meaningful. Played with comic frailty by Cuban-American actor Alvaro Orlando, Clarke is a tireless champion of his friend’s talent, even if that involves using Brook’s celebrity to promote his own work.
Cretton’s intelligent script captures the conundrum of an artist trying to grieve and grow amidst palm trees, perfect weather and cheerful friends. The characters in the film all ask the right questions about art, life and meaning, but acknowledge that they do not always have the answers.
Numerous local landmarks make an appearance in the film, including the intersection at 30th and University, the Logan Heights Cannery Workers mural, the Turf Club, the Balboa Park Golf Course, the Velodrome and the Hotel Del Coronado.
While these play an important part in establishing the setting, it is the ocean which ultimately plays the most important role in the story, first appearing in footage of 2011’s devastating Japanese tsunami and later serving as a source for personal and family redemption.
At first glance, “Hipster” seems a little lean on its representation of North Park’s cultural diversity, although key characters are played by Latino actors, including Clarke (Orlando) and Brook’s ex-girlfriend, Kells, who is played by Tania Verafield.
Additionally, knowing that Crettin is Hawaiian roots the story as an honest representation of his experience as a college student at San Diego State.
The characters in the film are clearly working and middle class students and artists, and Brook supplements his income by serving as a substitute teacher, like many artists in San Diego.
The film contains informed references to San Diego’s music history, such as a remark about Tom Waits; comparisons to Seattle and Austin; the resemblance of working-class Brook to Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, another Midwestern musical transplant to San Diego; and the film’s opening acoustic/percussion set, which is reminiscent of Jason Mraz’s years performing with conga player Noel “Toca” Rivera at Java Joe’s.
While the main characters in the film are played with natural ease by professional actors, many of the supporting roles are filled by local artists and musicians, including Clarke Forrest, Hess, Brad Kester, Darla Hawn and Joel P. West, who also wrote the film’s score.
Although the film does not go out of its way to call special attention to San Diego or its music scene, it does serve as a chronicle of an important artistic moment.
The artists and bands represented in the film are showcasing a segment of San Diego’s cultural community to the world and also contributed to the success of the film.
Songs by local bands The Tree Ring, Black Mamba, Cuckoo Chaos and The Donkeys are featured in the film, and the filmmakers raised over $30,000 on Kickstarter offering original prints, t-shirts and music from artists involved in the film.
Additionally, the film’s producers, Ron Najor and Trevor Fernando, are also SDSU alums.
It is always rewarding to see homegrown artistic projects succeed, especially when they are built around and support local talent.
Cretton also received support from a 2012 Cinereach Project at Sundance Institute Grant, which funds features and documentaries with themes that evoke global cultural exchange and social impact.
“I Am Not a Hipster” has a fresh and familiar feel reminiscent of other films that spring from local artistic communities, such as Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” and Edo Bertoglio’s “Downtown ’81,” which is set in the early ‘80s New York art scene and stars Jean Michel Basquiat, Fab Five Freddy, John Lurie and graffiti artist Lee Quiñones.
The SDSU grad’s time in San Diego is proving particularly fruitful, as his follow-up feature, “Short Term 12,” was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s SXSW film festival.
Based on his experience working at a local home for troubled teens, “Short term 12” is a feature-length remake of Cretton’s award-winning 2008 short which garnered top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and Boston International Film Festival.
San Diego is a great place to be an artist in your 20’s and 30’s, and those who have had the fortune of sharing the experience in the film will feel instant nostalgia for the authenticity of the story.
This is the community that helped make North Park so vibrant and helped make Ray at Night, Queen Bee Cultural Center, The Office, Claire de Lune and Off the Record so important to emerging local artists.
It remains to be seen whether this film will help encourage young artists and musicians to make great art. At the very least, it will encourage them to have fun trying.
For those looking to watch “I Am Not a Hipster” with friends on the big screen, the Media Arts Center San Diego is presenting the film from April 5-11 in its new Digital Gym Theater in North Park.
It is hard to think of a better place for San Diegans to see this film than the Media Arts Center SD, a local organization that inspires and trains people to make films.
The Media Arts Center San Diego is located at 2921 El Cajon Boulevard, and admission to the screenings is $10.50 general / $8.50 members, seniors, students and military. For tickets and screening times, visit http://www.digitalgym.org/i-am-not-a-hipster.
“I Am Not a Hipster” is also available on-demand, for streaming, download or DVD purchase at the film’s website http://iamnotahipster.com.
Ed Note: Here’s the Official Trailer