“Where you from?”
“Here. That’s the problem”
– dialogue from the film, written by JP Allen
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a billion times: the problem with stories about San Francisco is that they’re always told by people who come here, not people who are from here. As an artist and writer who was not only born here, but also spent his 40th birthday hike last month stopping at the hospital where he was born, I know this more than others.
That’s why when we come to the end of JP Allen’s Girl in Golden Gate Park, I’m willing to admit I got choked up. It’s not a spoiler for me to reveal that our heroine, Jean (Kim Jiang), ends the film narrating, “This is my park and my city. And I will never leave it, and no one will ever take it away. [..] This is my home.”
She repeats the last line for emphasis. I’m scared to death that I’ll have to leave my hometown for some place across the country, so those words resonate with me in a way I can’t fully describe. As do the circumstances which lead up to Jean’s final narration.
She may not look it, but Jean is homeless. Living out of her car, she knows she doesn’t have it as bad as others (an early scene sees her exiting a convenience store and leaving candy bars next to someone sleeping on the ground), but that doesn’t mean her recent occupation as a thief has brought in a lot of cash.
She parks next to Golden Gate Park, the place of one of her happiest childhood memories. There she spots a nameless woman (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) who sells tours to tourists when she isn’t picking their pockets. Jean finds herself drawn to the woman, in no short part because their circumstances are nearly identical (the woman lives in an apartment, but is barely making ends meet and is in danger of eviction). But also because Jean needs someone of that skill level to assist in her plot against Chris Moore (Allison Ewing), the very sort of libertarian property-flipper The City has in abundance of late.
Because when you have nothing, you have nothing left to lose.
JP Allen’s film has two things I feel have been sorely missing from similar films of its stripe: 1 – a lack of pretentiousness; and 2 – a diversity of camera angles. So many indie films think merely switching the camera on is enough, but a lack of budget doesn’t mean a film should lack imagination (something clearly on display during a love scene performed as an intimate dance). And when films try to talk about a) “big issues”, b) San Francisco, or c) both of the above, they tend to do it with the sort of self-important declaration that one expects from a politician. They have nothing to say, but they have plenty of it to say.
Girl… is wise enough to not turn its characters into mouthpieces. The quote at the top comes naturally through the course of conversation between Jean and the Mystery Woman. They don’t need to pontificate about the socioeconomic problems of San Francisco because they’re both living them. Their sparse words and body language (Jiang and Stuart do excellent work here, both being on screen the majority of the film) do enough to convey how tired they are of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Nor does the film make a straw-woman out of Chris Moore, but it doesn’t forgive her either. She’s quick to pat herself on the back for building “affordable” housing in The City, but completely frustrated with the amount of red tape attached to any form of SF real estate – an attitude that only helps rich landlords. Chris doesn’t lack humanity, she and her real estate firm just fail to recognize it in the tenants they’re trying to evict.
I’m hesitant to detail Jean’s plan against Chris, as it’s both a criminal act, but also a relatable act by someone desperate. The film was clearly shot in a pre-COVID SF, something shown by both the lack of masks and the stranglehold Big Tech still had on its employees to move here. Both those things have changed, and the latter offers a glimmer of hope that the current techie exodus will return our city to the “poor artist haven” it once was – hopefully, with more resources for those lacking in finances.
What I’m saying is, I hope we’re moving (back) toward a San Francisco where a plot like Jean’s against Chris wouldn’t be necessary.
Two months into the new year, Girl in Golden Gate Park is one of the best 2021 films I’ve seen thus far. In addition to its creative camera work, good acting, and subtle-but-effective storytelling, it revels in the City in which it’s set. It chooses far-off shots of the de Young Museum over the go-to shots of the Golden Gate Bridge; it may be the first SF film to shoot near the Powell St. Station since Memoirs of an Invisible Man; and I’m pretty sure not even Zodiac showed the angle of Mission St. that appears early in this film.
The film isn’t trying to sell you on the City because it isn’t a story about outsiders. It’s the story of preserving a dying part of our City through means that may not seem ethical, but only to those who aren’t actually from here. It’s the sort of San Francisco story I’ve been wanting to see for a long time.
And it’s about goddamn time I found it.
Girl in Golden Gate Park is scheduled to stream until the 21st of February as part of SF Indie Fest 2021.
The film runs 1 hour 34 minutes.
For information on how to view this and other films, please visit the festival’s official site here.