Rating: ★★★ 1/2
When I was first introduced to Ekaj, I genuinely thought it was a documentary. The realisation that it was in fact a work of fiction took me by surprise, and this is a testament to the directing style of Cati Gonzalez. She has gone to great lengths to make this film feel as real as possible. None of the actors in the film are well-known or established, making them seem like ordinary people you might pass on the street. This sense of realism draws you closer to the characters we meet throughout, and I really loved this stylistic choice.
This gritty, imperfect camerawork and editing matches well with the harsh realities of life for Ekaj and his friend Mecca, both of which are young, gay Puerto Ricans trying to navigate the intimidating streets of New York City. This film doesn’t sugar coat it, as we are greeted with things such as drug abuse, AIDS, violence and sexual assault. We are forced to live this reality alongside Ekaj and Mecca, in all its harrowing honesty. It’s worlds away from my own, yet I felt close to the subject matter throughout. Ekaj and Mecca are complete opposites, with Mecca’s life experience and protective nature conflicting with Ekaj and his naivety. Following these two characters throughout was thoroughly entertaining, despite the difficult environment they both live in.
As the titular character, Jake Mestre really stood out to me. He does a fantastic job at portraying someone young, clueless and confused about their own identity. He experiments with new looks, new scents, and what he feels most comfortable in. He is a character that many can identify with when it comes to sexuality and gender identity, even if they do not share the same life experiences. In addition, the presence of Ekaj’s homophobic and aggressive father is an upsetting reminder of the rejection many individuals face from their own family members. I’m glad Ekaj never avoided these issues or tried to pretend they didn’t exist, instead, they were placed in clear view for the discomfort of the audience. It’s important we shed light on these societal problems, and cinema as a great way to do this.
The intrusive nature of the camera paired with natural, overlapping dialogue is striking, and at times I felt as though I shouldn’t be watching what I was. I felt like a genuine spectator, desperately trying to get a closer look at the lives of these individuals, even when they were talking about some deep and intense topics. The fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking is what really stood out to me with Ekaj, and something I seriously enjoyed throughout. To me, this is what sets the film apart from others within the genre.
All in all, Ekaj is a well-rounded indie film that gives us a heartfelt and eye opening look at the dark side of New York City, whilst simultaneously creating a compelling and strong relationship between two young men. The way humour and sentimentalities still existed in such an awful world gave me a glimmer of hope, and some light relief throughout. Fundamentally, this is down to great writing and acting, which I’m full of praise for when it comes to this film.
I would certainly recommend Ekaj to a variety of audiences, whether or not you feel you can identify with any of the characters or subject matters. It sheds light on the darker side to human existence, which is important for us all to witness.
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