The directorial debut of Victoria Negri reveals a confident eye behind what could have been a dull twenty-something diatribe.
“Am I a huge disappointment?” That’s the quiet question we all hold within ourselves, and if we’re smart, we find endless ways to shove it back down into the bottomless pit of our self-loathing subconscious. We’re desperate for a loved one to answer with a loud shake of their head but the chance that an affirmative glance falls over their face keeps us up at night. None of us get out of this alive. Our only hope is that we find happiness in the life that has randomly sprung up around us. Would any of our twelve-year-old selves be satisfied with our compromised reality? No. But what did that brat know anyway?
Of course, writer/director/star Victoria Negri is certainly making it happen. In Gold Star, she has constructed an awkward adult awakening that confronts our inescapable human doubt and offers hope for the hopeless. Here we encounter the meandering Vicki, a music school dropout that lost the faith in her talent and found monetary survival as a health club retail drone. She wakes up most mornings to the kissy-face confirmation of her rock ‘n’ roll boyfriend, but whatever pleasures can be found, they will only further highlight her sour existence. Vicki is ready to wallow unless someone pulls her out from despair. This is the story of someone who has been there.
Gold Star opens with a series of fleeting sights and sounds: the breath of a jogger mixing with the gasps of the dying, ocean waves crashing over whining ambulance sirens, and the blurry faces of EMTs masking the sorrow of a helpless family member in the background. It’s a serious embracing of the cinematic; not something you would expect from a first-time actor turned director. Negri shows an innate appreciation for the medium throughout Gold Star, and while we’ve encountered various indie iterations of the coming-of-age picture, it’s rare to find one that even bothers to balance style and meaning.
When Vicki’s mother (Catherine Curtin) interrupts her bumbling routine with the notification that her father (Robert Vaughn) has suffered a debilitating stroke, she must return home to aid in his recovery. Vaughn delivers a nearly silent performance as the 90-year-old man confined to a bed and wheelchair, and his inability to communicate with his daughter underscores the years of silence that previously defined their relationship. Rather than rising to the occasion, Vicki resists any form of intimacy, kicking and screaming at how this horror has halted her boorish daily habits. We could easily choose sides in Gold Star, but Negri finds the necessary moments to allow the audience to peek behind Vicki’s selfish concerns. The way the camera hangs on her exhausted, middle-distance stare reveals a knowing pain that betrays her hard exterior.
In what would be his final performance, Robert Vaughn is allowed only his physicality to express his character’s rage and regret. For most of the film, we’re stuck in Viki’s POV, and we see only how her father’s incapacitation hinders her b.s. Vaughn may be the reason why a lot of viewers show up to Gold Star. He’s a legend, and he has lost none of the charms that fortified his illustrious status. In a glance, we can still see Napoleon Solo, and with the pained clench of his jaw, we break under the realization that all our heroes wither. Like Vicki, we must give thanks for these last moments with a man that defined our popular culture.
Just as Vaughn penetrates Vicki’s self-interest, Gold Star gets distracted with a meet-cute subplot involving Jacob Heimer’s good guy, Chris. Both actors display appropriate chemistry, but it’s a boring bond – expected, but also unwanted. When the screenplay ignores dad, the film rambles into the typical. While I applaud flirtations built on a foundation of Silence of the Lambs references, any moments that relieve the tension between father, daughter, and mother feel like an easy-out.
The climax can only occur when parent and child consent to a conversation. Who is this kid I produced? Who is this man that came before? Did I do right by her? Is he proud of what I am? The answers should be obvious and easy to place into words. If we have to ask them then let’s hope we get the answers before it’s too late. Gold Star works best when it tortures its characters with this struggle. Rather than waiting for a substantive role to present itself, Victoria Negri went out and concocted one herself. She has splayed her very being across the screen for us to explore and she found a titanic co-star to solidify the venture.