Ekaj is a gritty 2015 film about a young runaway who escapes a disadvantageous situation at home — for a disadvantageous situation on the streets of New York. Ekaj (Jake Mestre) is a skinny, strikingly pretty young man with soft features who doesn’t necessarily dress as a female but is often mistaken for one and therefore — or coincidentally — presents himself more femininely than not. He meets a street hustler named Mecca (Badd Idea), who we later find out has AIDS and a host of other problems. Still, he takes Ekaj under his wing and the two strike up a close friendship.
Perhaps because of his home life – shown through flashbacks of an abusive father, Ekaj seeks love and comfort from a similarly dominant, authoritative older man (Scooter LaForge) who winds up treating him just as badly as his father did.
To survive on his own without this would-be sugar daddy, Ekaj starts hustling but gets robbed by another hustler, raped by a client and attacked by three thugs while he’s sleeping on a park bench. These story elements get tossed off rather quickly – perhaps because Ekaj himself had to quickly move on from them. But this, along with the guerilla filmmaking style, shaky camerawork, often-unpleasant lighting and a few of Mecca’s lines about the realities of life on the streets, help establish the film’s unrelentingly but wholly appropriate stark tone.
Ekaj doesn’t seem to follow a particular story structure – giving the film a slice-of-life feel that may or not have been intentioned. It starts, proceeds and then ends without a clear arc – though there are subplots throughout. And there isn’t much by way of setting up the main character’s situation early on, so I felt a bit thrown into whatever starting point the filmmakers decided to bring us to – which may or may not have been the actual beginning of the story. I felt the same way at the end – though less jarringly so. And the film doesn’t attempt to justify itself for that or clarify any confusion behind that. It leaves you to piece together any parts of the story you may have missed with whatever information you may glean from the other parts of the story. Or, in the case of the ending, leaves you to wonder what it meant for Ekaj.
Because the story itself doesn’t search for or bring us to a happy ending – which makes sense given that Ekaj may never get one himself, we don’t necessarily root for him. We care about him and want him to be safe, but I never found myself hoping for more for him than survival. Whether this was a brilliant reflection of the character’s situation or an unintended consequence of the film’s story choices, it makes perfect sense for the film. That, or I’m just a heartless jerk.
Story choices aside, the characters of Ekaj and Mecca are very well-drawn. And Idea is great as Mecca.
The best part of Ekaj is the relationship between Ekaj and Mecca that is allowed to develop and play itself out over the course of the film – with much credit due to the actors and writer/director Cati Gonzalez for however it was established on the page and transferred to the screen. Though the film brands itself as a love story about the two, I didn’t get that from the film save for one scene where Mecca expresses his feelings for Ekaj. But if there is romantic love involved — as opposed to love on a more friendly level, it comes across as largely one-sided. Either way, the film is better off for how this aspect of it comes across.
All in all, Ekaj is a very interesting film in terms of both its subject matter and production. There is a lot to enjoy if you can accept its stylistic choices for what they are (which I do) and how they help inform the film’s unrelentingly stark tone. Otherwise, you may not be entirely sure what to make of it.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Cati and Mike Gonzalez