Written by: Adam Vaughn | April 19th, 2021
86 Melrose Avenue (Lili Matta, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
Lili Matta’s second feature film certainly comes with an explosion of story to tell, tackling timely material corresponding to today’s social issues of mental illness, terrorism and the diverse society we embody as a human race. 86 Melrose Avenue has plenty to say, but in the midst of her gripping story, director Matta oversees major cinematic moments, including the script and editing, that drag down an otherwise momentous concept.
86 Melrose Avenue is about Travis (Dade Elsa), a PTSD-ridden veteran returning from the war in Afghanistan who, after murdering a friend of his wife, holds the people in an art gallery hostage. As the police close in, Travis starts to converse with the various hostages, learning who they are and how they came to be who they are. The longer Travis holds them prisoner, the more and more the characters of the story start to unfurl.
As stated, 86 Melrose Avenue is strongest when it hones in on the themes of veteran hardships, mental illness and trauma. Elsa’s performance as Travis is relatable, and by the end of the story, we feel a strong sense of pity and compassion towards him. On top of that, many of the characters in the story have backgrounds that fully align with the theme, contributing to tonal unity. Director Matta finds clever comparisons in showing us the artist’s life and the trauma of a mentally ill soldier.
While the film has many unique ideas, the writing of said story gets very choppy, jumping around and disorienting the audience. Not one single flashback goes without feeling entirely unmerited and out of place, which is a shame considering the strong weight the scenes could otherwise have. As the film begins, much of the expository dialogue makes you want to turn the film off then and there, if not for the looming promise of that beginning. Muddy conversation and awkward moments are used to fill the calm before the storm, and once the thrills ensue, we’re swiftly met with the uncomfortable insertions of flashbacks that change the moments of the film entirely.
While 86 Melrose Avenue has a lot of promising potential, the film misses the mark by forgetting many basic cinematic necessities, including a believably seamless sound design (which the films often lacks), solid writing backed up by at least believable acting, and a focus on a single idea. Instead, 86 Melrose Avenue seems to want to balance the stories of Travis side-by-side with every other character in the script, which leads to its narrative downfall.