Dumped by his girlfriend during graduation so that he doesn’t feature in her family photographs, would-be writer Daniel (Josh Peck) is left to begin a new life in Los Angeles lovesick and alone. He takes a room that’s Silver Lake adjacent, in a house shared by landlord Jose (Amaury Nolasco) and single mother Louisa (Valerie Cruz). When Jose suggests that he visits a local bar in order to take his mind off his ex and perhaps treat his writer’s block with some new experiences, he meets Seth (Finn Wittrock), a mysterious, motivated stranger who promises to do both.
To say much more would be to do Locating Silver Lake, the filmmakers and their audience, a disservice, for it is meticulously and methodically crafted to unfold in a very specific way. It’s not that there are potentially ruinous spoilers, per se, so much as an order to proceedings and a specific sense of progression that depends on it being left to play out as intended — the eventual revelation confirming a growing suspicion rather than coming as a complete surprise. This is a story designed to seduce, to coax and confuse; it’s a story about storytelling — and a fascinating one at that. Pay attention, stay the course, and you will be rewarded.
The confidence and ambition on show from writer-director Eric Bilitch is quite simply extraordinary, especially for a filmmaker with only one prior credit — The Submarine Kid, which he co-wrote Finn Wittrock, an actor still best known for his equally electric turns on American Horror Story. Everything about Locating Silver Lake feels authentic and convincing, from its depiction of suburban Los Angeles to the arcs of its characters and the complex relationships between them, both a clear result of Bilitch’s commitment to research and credibility. That it has such a strong sense of identity is even more impressive, with an eclectic soundtrack and eccentric cast of characters lending it a personality all of its own.
Perhaps Bilitch’s greatest triumph, however, lies in the spectacularly talented actors he has assembled for the film — a stellar, if lesser known, ensemble which impresses even in the smallest roles. That Peck manages to keep his soulful and understated protagonist (a struggling writer, no less) at the centre of things, even as Wittrock’s cocksure and conceited Seth wrestles him for the limelight, is testament to the command he has over Daniel as an individual as opposed to an ideal. His relationships with Jose and Louisa are the film’s heart, and together they provide the perfect antidote to the more intellectual and esoteric aspects of Daniel’s character whenever Seth’s rampant moralizing becomes a bit of a headache.
There’s much to consider and discuss with regards to Locating Silver Lake but the one thing that’s impossible to understate is how compelling Wittrock is as Seth, and how key his performance is to the success of the film, especially given its surreptitious subject matter. He may not be the focus of the movie but Seth is undoubtedly its locus, and just as his influence is felt throughout the film so too will Wittrock’s be after it has finished.