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Life is like that

It would be a shame if moviegoers lumped Darnell Martin's vibrant debut I Like It Like That into the same category of urban-angst dramas as Jason's Lyric and Menace II Society, just because of its setting and non-white characters. The Bronx is still a life-or-death situation here, but Martin's intuitive, compelling story of a young Latino woman on the ropes focuses on the "life" part of that conflict in a way rarely seen.

Lisette Linares (Lauren Velez) is a bittersweetly typical character for these environs; married with rebellious children and too dependent on an oversexed, under-principled type named Chino (Jon Seda). He's the kind of guy who's more concerned with his own sexual stamina than with his partner's pleasure.

When Chino is jailed for theft, Lisette must finally take control of her life to preserve her family. That eventually challenges Chino's machismo, leading to one of the most genuine romantic conflicts we've seen in a while. Lisette finds an impressive job _ one that might lift her out of the Bronx _ but at the risk of losing Chino to his sluttish old flame (Lisa Vidal).

I Like It Like That brims with impressive characters, enlivened by a flawless cast of actors. Velez is a revelation; sexy, but naive, forceful without relying on Rosie Perez-style shrillness, with moments of longing and hope that are truly heartbreaking. In a year when movie industry observers are bemoaning the lack of Oscar-caliber performances by women, Velez and her showcase deserve attention.

Seda lends an air of sympathy to Chino that the lout needs to be believable, and scenes of the Linares' disrupted family life possess a stirring poignancy, thanks to him and, especially, 10-year-old Tomas Melly as a budding gangsta. Oscar winner Rita Moreno (West Side Story) aims a few sharp barbs at the situation as Chino's meddling mother.

Griffin Dunne (After Hours) adds a juicy supporting performance as an Anglo record executive in charge of Latino acts, who lucks into Lisette's innate awareness for what will sell in the Bronx, then becomes one more complication in her hectic life.

Martin, as screenwriter and director, maintains an extraordinary sense of control over this unique material for a first-time director. I Like It Like That is constantly surprising, for the plot twists it avoids as much as for its originality. Much has been made of the fact that Martin is the first African-American woman _ although her mother is white _ to have a film distributed by a major studio (Columbia), after earning raves at the Cannes Film Festival.

All well and good; pure talent always should be acknowledged and encouraged, especially when it comes from such direly overlooked social sources. But to believe that Martin's film is notable only for that reason is as absurd as comparing it to those depressing gangs-and-guns dramas. I Like It Like That is a startling bundle of fun and emotions that most filmmakers, regardless of color, gender or experience, would be proud to call their own.


I Like It Like That

Grade: A-

Director: Darnell Martin

Cast: Lauren Velez, Jon Seda, Rita Moreno, Griffin Dunne

Screenplay: Darnell Martin

Rating: R; profanity, nudity, sexual situations, violence

Running time: 94 min.