Jason Freeland's Garden Party plays a bit like Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993), taking a look at a cross-section of Los Angeles characters, though it runs less than half the length and, conversely, half the depth. The movie also reminded me a little of that early scene in Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954), wherein the titular heroine secretly watches a swank Los Angeles party from a safe distance, imagining what it must be like to be there. Likewise, sophomore writer/director Freeland (Brown's Requiem) doesn't quite feel like the host of this particular "garden party," but rather like the party's Sabrina, secretly spying from the sidelines. The film feels a bit removed, unwilling or unable to muster the courage to party crash, to really engage its characters.

Garden Party starts with April (Willa Holland), a beautiful 15 year-old with an Avril Lavigne look, who tries to escape from her lascivious stepfather by acquiring a fake ID and posing for nude internet photos for cash. Then we meet Sally St. Clair (Vinessa Shaw, who played the prostitute "Domino" in Eyes Wide Shut), a successful, controlling and backstabbing realtor. She keeps a greenhouse full of prime pot that she uses to close deals, and her assistant Nathan (Alexander Cendese) is at her beck and call 24/7. Nathan drives her car, stays in her house and looks after her garden. He smokes too much pot, is confused about his sexuality and seems to have forgotten why he came to the City of Angels in the first place. Todd (Richard Gunn) is an independently wealthy artist who lives in the house he grew up in. He's obsessed with Sally, whose old, nude photos he has admired on the Internet. By chance he meets her in a parking lot and endears himself to her by removing gum from her expensive shoe.


Finally, we have Sammy (Erik Scott Smith), a fresh-off-the-bus singer/songwriter who more or less flows with the tide. He never once makes a decision for himself, and by the end of the movie has signed the glittering prize record deal. (With his faux, raspy-sensitive voice, he sounds like he may have auditioned for the Plain White T's and lost.) Sammy is the only one who doesn't quite fit in the story; his instant success doesn't mesh with the other lost, groping characters, and he only casually crosses paths with them. Nathan invites him to crash at his place, giving him some pot and hoping to score with him, but little comes of it. Later, one of April's pals sweeps him up and proceeds to prepare him for the limelight. Sammy' most revealing moment comes when, crashing on the couch of a loser stoner, he gets stoned too, and giggles at a fart joke.

The movie, I think, wants to peer into some titillating Southern California underbelly of drugs, sex and porn, but it refuses to show any sex or nudity. One girl has sex with Sammy while wearing her bra. When Nathan goes dancing and flirts with another man, he's insufficiently aroused when the man shoves him in a bathroom stall. The only character who appears naked is an unnamed shy girl posing for a sleazy photographer (Patrick Fischler), and she's never seen nor heard from again. Regardless, the film has nudity on the brain; April quickly becomes jaded to the nude photo idea and agrees to go back to shoot some explicit scenes with Nathan. Sally at one point says that she got into Real Estate so that she wouldn't have to take off her clothes. And despite the fact that Todd practically blurts out that he's wanked off to her picture on the internet, she hangs around him anyway. Moreover, no one ever seems to have any adverse affects from dugs, even when Sally tokes up while driving.

On the plus side, however, Garden Party doesn't always dare to suggest closure for its searching characters. Sammy has a clean little story; we leave off with him on the cusp of riches and fame, which is good because otherwise he doesn't seem able to dress or feed himself. And Nathan announces that he's moving back home and going back to school, but the other characters' futures seem uncertain, and the film ends with a sinister full circle. A slimy, middle-aged real estate man (Christopher Allport) -- who tries to pick up April in the first shot -- successfully picks up another wayward girl in the film's last shot. Everyone is a transient here, and there's always someplace else to spend the night. The film itself has the same wandering quality, moving from the depths of a stinky apartment in a "sketch" neighborhood with noisy neighbors, to the luxury of a quiet patio, lit up at night by diffused colored lights and accompanied by the soft ripple of a swimming pool. But if people come and go in Los Angeles, the film reasons, then sex is a permanent resident. Too bad Garden Party doesn't have the sense of purpose to stop wandering and searching and instead embrace the sheer longing and desire that causes all this trouble.