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NPR Arts & Life

In A Serious Season, The Loose Charms Of 'Little Feet'

Nico Rockwell and Lana Rockwell star in <em>Little Feet.</em>
Factory Twenty Five
Nico Rockwell and Lana Rockwell star in <em>Little Feet.</em>

On Christmas, a slew of Oscar hopefuls will hit theaters, taking on the kind of important topics you might expect from such prestige pictures: corruption in contemporary Russia, the psychological aftereffects of war, the struggles of the civil rights movement. In their company, the eccentricities of Alexandre Rockwell's Little Feet, which is getting a digital release on Vimeo and Fandor as well as a theatrical run in New York, stand out even more than normal. Shot in 16mm black-and-white and clocking in at a snappy 60 minutes, the movie could almost function as an opening short, certainly as a refreshing appetizer, for the more ambitious films receiving award chatter.

That's not to suggest the film is slight or shallow. Cutesiness and whimsy do feature prominently, but that's impossible to avoid given that the movie is about two siblings, Lana and Nico (played by Rockwell's children of the same names), who, upon discovering that one of their two goldfish has died, embark on a journey across Los Angeles to set the second one free in the Pacific Ocean. In fact, in its own understated way and without undermining the film's otherwise lighthearted mood, Little Feetbroaches some serious topics of its own.

Nico and Lana, we surmise in the film's opening scenes, have recently lost their mother. The death of one of their goldfish affects them deeply, then, although it's evident that the two kids regularly process their lives through the lens of fantasy even before that — at one point, Lana tells Nico a story about a panda that becomes depressed after the death of his best friend. The moment comes only shortly after the brief appearance of their father (played by Rockwell), who we see passed out on the couch with a bottle of vodka.

Nico and Lana's journey, then, carries metaphorical weight, but it's not overwhelmed or defined by it. Little Feet doesn't merely explore escapism; it channels it. Not in the style of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, which may come to mind watching these children, but in a way much more ramshackle in its construction, more immediately and obviously a product of a child's imagination, with all the digressions and disorganization that entails.

Little Feet's end titles, in fact, give a story credit to "Lana and Dad," which is appropriate for a film that feels very much like a home movie, with father, son, and daughter playing dress-up around the city. Lana at one point walks around in a skeleton jumpsuit. Nene (Rene Cuante), a neighbor who joins Nico and Lana on their journey, dons a captain's hat and 3D glasses. Together, they look like they've just finished cleaning out the local thrift store.

A similarly disordered style permeates much of Little Feet, but of course, when dad is a renowned indie filmmaker, the results are a touch above what the rest of us might hope to produce in similar circumstances. Rockwell's presence is also felt in the occasional spurt of more provocative adult humor, such as when the three kids, in an attempt to get enough money for the bus to the ocean, collect empty liquor bottles off the street to cash in the deposit.

But what's most striking, in the end, are the kids themselves: Nico's rambunctious energy, his devotion to Lana, her tender protection of him. ("I love you Lana. In my brains and my heart," Nico says in one of the movie's more aww-inspiring moments.) They, along with a propulsive soundtrack, hold the film together, if only by a string. Shagginess is the movie's definitive trait, after all, which ultimately only further signals why Little Feet offers a compelling antidote to most other movies on the release calendar this month: Far from being precisely molded to elicit an emotional response, Little Feet is content to let the pieces fall more haphazardly and to seek resonance in small moments rather than grand, dramatic gestures.

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