Those really familiar with Boston independent moviemaking know that Jan Egleson mounted the first sustained attempt at making homegrown fiction features in the area. His Billy in the Lowlands and The Dark End of the Street are the best of the "Beanstreet movies" of the late 1970s and early 1980s, well-acted, highly involving pieces of life in the city with an appeal that stretches far beyond our borders. But, after making a combination of TV and theatrical movies in the years that followed, Egleson's return to the indie streets of Boston might be his most purely entertaining movie. It's also a little-seen film worthy of discovery on DVD.
2001. Directed by Jan Egleson. Written by Natatcha Estébanez and Jan Egleson. With Miriam Colón, Lisa Vidal, Jose Yenque, William Marquez, Jaime Tirelli and Jack Mulcahy. Cinematography by Teresa Medina.
AT ROUGHLY THE SAME time Hollywood released What’s the Worst That Could Happen?—an unsatisfying multi-cultural Boston movie— a little independent film was arriving, too. But its multi-cultural Boston is a lot more entertaining and clever than its Hollywood counterpart’s. The Blue Diner is the result of a collaboration between WGBH documentary producer Natatcha Estébanez and pioneering Cambridge independent director Jan Egleson (Billy in the Lowlands). Chance meetings in the hallway at WGBH, where each was working, led to the pair partnering on a bilingual script focusing on a Puerto Rican mother and daughter living in Boston’s Hispanic community.
Elena (Lisa Vidal) is the daughter and Meche (Miriam Colón) the mother who’s all too eager to remind her grown child how much she sacrificed to come to the mainland to give Elena more opportunities in life. But straddling mainstream American culture and the Hispanic subculture of her neighborhood (with street scenes filmed in Dorchester’s colorful Uphams Corner) is all too much for Elena. Ironically, she feels bad because Meche is pushing her away from her roots, not because her mother won’t let go.
Bilingual Elena works in sales at a casket company where she’s romantically drawn to two co-workers: Brian (Jack Mulcahy), one of the Anglo bosses, and Tito (Jose Yenque), a South American artist toiling as a casket builder until he can get a visa that will allow him to stay in the country. Magical realism enters the story when the stress of deciding between safe Brian and romantic Tito (whom Meche takes every opportunity to badmouth) causes Elena to have a panic attack. After the attack, she can no longer understand or speak Spanish.
This cultural amnesia might have been a heavy metaphor for The Blue Diner to bear, but there’s such a breezy, colorful air to the story that it works. Elena’s condition not only forces her to assess her relationship to her heritage. It also forces everyone around her to ponder that relationship, including Meche, who’s been withholding info about Elena’s father from her, and Papo (William Marquez), the Cuban-American cook at the eponymous diner that’s trying to get a loan from a white banker (Ken Cheeseman). Naturally, the truth must manifest itself before Elena’s Spanish reappears, but you never get the feeling The Blue Diner is following a formula.
That’s because its style is just unconventional enough to feel spontaneous. In the years after The Little Sister, the last of his homegrown “Boston trilogy,” Egleson flitted between PBS productions, network TV movies (including the locally shot Original Sins) and non-Boston features (including 1990’s very funny dark comedy A Shock to the System). Obviously he’s a much more professional filmmaker
in The Blue Diner than he was in 1980 (Teresa Medina’s cinematography and photogenic Vidal make this an unusually attractive movie). But returning to his Boston neighborhood movie roots, Egleson finds another way to inject documentary style into the movie, and that’s by having characters periodically talk to the audience. These inserts aren’t deep monologues or distracting asides within other scenes; they’re totally conversational, and add to the friendly tone of the movie. Estébanez, who died in 2007, created that tone as much as Egleson, and he shares the director’s customary “A Film By” credit with her.
Part of the handsomeness of The Blue Diner, which played in film festivals but could not secure theatrical distribution before airing on PBS, is in its locations. Circumstances necessitated creativity: when the Museum of Fine Arts (where Meche works as a cleaner) thought twice about letting the movie shoot there, Egleson, Estébanez and their crew let interiors in the Boston Public Library and the Mass. Historical Society stand in for the MFA. Similarly, the real-life Blue Diner (on Kneeland and South Streets) had moved, its space taken over by a new restaurant; what we see here is the outside of that diner (now called South Street Diner) and the interior of Wilson’s Diner in Waltham. The movie also shot at East Boston’s New England Casket Company and in the back room of an Irish bar on Boylston Street in the Fenway, while the scenes in Elena and Meche’s apartment were filmed in Brookline.
►Locations: Waltham; Dorchester, East Boston, Back Bay, Fenway, Jamaica Plain, Boston; Brookline.
►Accents: Sí. But not Boston accents.
►Local color: The bright colors provide a welcome contrast from the stately brick that dominates most Boston movies. The Blue Diner is sunny and summery, unusual qualities for the city and its movies. Avoiding oft-seen locations adds to the refreshing quality of the genuinely feel-good bilingual tale.