A restless camera focuses on a house, the frame shifting as its owner moves inside their car to get a clear shot of the home's residents arriving. They are James and Amy Deakin (Nick Stahl and Mia Kershner) and we are about to get to know them much, much better.
Shot entirely from the perspective of a nameless, faceless observer with sinister intentions, 388 Arletta Ave is a home invasion film played out in agonizing slow motion, one that puts an entirely new spin on the concept of verite horror. There is no documentary crew here, no police or government agency discovering lost footage. Instead the entire film is presented as surveillance footage captured by the cameras hidden throughout James and Amy's home or held by the observer parked in a van across the street. We know only what the camera sees, only what the stalker considers important. What are his goals and aims? We're as clueless about that as James himself is. All we can do is watch things play out as our antagonist moves from observation to intrusion to full on menace, using his knowledge of James' life to great advantage.
There are certain strengths and weaknesses inherent in writer-director Randall Cole's approach to 388 Arletta Ave. The plus side is a truly uncomfortable intimacy, the entire film steeped in a voyeurism that makes the verite format immediate and relevant in a way that it has seldom been in recent years. The weakness, however, is that we have very little connection with James and Amy as their assault builds in intensity and, as a consequence, 388 Arletta Ave is a film that stays largely in the head as a cerebral experience instead of moving down into the gut with the sort of visceral punch you would hope for. It is a film filled with interesting concepts and ideas but it is in a genre meant to be felt more than thought about and it struggles to bridge that gap despite a strong performance from Nick Stahl - who carries the entire movie, appearing in virtually every shot - and solid construction from Cole and editor Kathy Weinkauf.
More time spent with James and Amy before things turn dark or perhaps breaking the verite convention enough to allow for a bit of subtle music and sound design to underscore key moments would very likely have added enough oomph to push 388 Arletta Ave over the top. As it is, it is likely a film that viewers will appreciate for its craft and ideas more than they will love for the experience.
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