Review: ‘L.A. Tea Time’ Soaks up Life like a Sponge

Speaking directly to a camera, a young woman stumbles over how to address one of her filmmaking heroes. She tries out “Hello, Miranda”, “Hello, Ms July” and “Hi, Miranda July” but none of it sounds right. Too casual, too formal, too personal and out of body. With each take, she rambles awkwardly about Miranda being one of her filmmaking heroes (as is Chantal Akerman, but unfortunately she is dead) and asks if they can meet up for an hour to have tea in LA, to talk about filmmaking and if Ms July can offer any advice. After a few takes of this, the young woman decides she’ll never send any of the videos and will send a courteous email to her assistant instead.

Although the sequence feels awkward, it’s humbling that  I should come across such a moment when just a few weeks earlier I had nervously emailed a copy of my work to a filmmaker myself. My own email straddled the line between weirdly formal and earnest, a cool distance maintained while I was also freaking out. Whether or not the eventual outcome is what we both desire, there is something noble about women simply reaching out and asking the question. Bolder still is the newly 30 Sophie Bédard Marcotte and her friend/director of photography Isabelle, without any firm confirmation from Miranda July’s assistant, taking to the road and heading to L.A, even for the chance. 

L.A Tea Time is a documentary of Sophie and Isabella’s road trip from Quebec through middle America to sunny Los Angeles. Filled with magical realism (reaching Los Angeles is represented by an image of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz edited into the landscape), pink and blue neon-hued hotel rooms, sprawling landscapes, shifts in aspect ratios and quips about not being able to afford the rights to a Robyn song on the radio, what results is a film which is dreamy, meditative, and playful.

Chantal Akerman once said, when she makes a documentary, she has an idea what the subject will be, but doesn’t know where the film will take her: “I just try to be a sponge and take in what I see.” Indeed, these words are spoken by Akerman in the film, a disembodied voice descending from the heavens as advice to Sophie as she stands alone in a New Mexico desert. Filming her road trip, it is clear these are the words which have been in Sophie’s mind the entire trip. At the beginning, her and Isabelle take a lot of footage of fields, lots and lots of empty fields, because this is what they see on their journey, and the contrast of the green fields to the icy white, snowed-under winter they left in Quebec is worth taking in.

Soon enough, after field number eight or so, Sophie suggests they should start talking to people, to take them in like a sponge. First, they meet a young man at a protest in an anonymous city, the three of them sitting in a park talking about travelling to Japan. Next, there’s a dancer at a university who tries to teach Sophie some dance moves in the middle of a football field. Sophie is not very good, but she is keen to try. There’s a woman with long blonde hair who leads Sophie through meditation. Soon following, Sophie leads the audience through a meditation with a voice over, and an image of a pink glow emerging over a rural horizon.

Not a lot is revealed about these people whom the pair meet. Isabelle diligently films every moment, mainly appearing as the voice behind the camera. But the audience never learns who the woman with the long blonde hair is, or the man who sits with them. Never is it revealed how each connection is made, least of all their name. Exploration into specific subjects barely scratches the surface, but Sophie is just happy to observe and participate, and with each new experience, she takes in a little bit more. Whether Isabelle is zooming in on a colourful, purple bush in the middle of a sea of gravel or a fresh sprig of green amongst the tumbleweed, L.A Tea Time is unhurried in taking in the beauty of the world. 

There is also a glimpse of the reality of two women travelling alone: these moments aren’t particularly overt, but nonetheless send unease through its shiver of recognition. While filming a parking lot, we hear the audio of a man asking about what the girls are filming. He is pleasant enough, loves the country and thinks it is beautiful, but I still felt uncomfortable waiting for a leering comment that never comes. Only hearing the interaction off camera, the moment is suspenseful. There’s also other moments that hint at this discomfort. Sophie’s utter refusal to get any closer to an isolated building in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. A serenade by a grizzled, crazy-eyed man on Route 66, making comments about each girl’s look and identifying Isabelle as the girl “with the white bra strap”. These moments are brief and unforced, and candidly depict the challenges women can face just by being out in the world. It is doubtful that male filmmakers would encounter a similar potentially uncomfortable situation just from a simple interaction of a man curious as to what they are filming. It’s a brief meditation on the risks women make for their art, but also, reminds how inherently female the film is: two women following the footsteps of the female filmmakers they admire, and the vulnerability of it.

Though the documentary’s only 86 minutes long, the film is languid in pace. If it were not for Sophie’s calm and meditative voice sweeping in over long shots of scenery updating us on the status of her communication with Miranda July’s assistant, it would be easy to forget that as the reason for the trip itself. When she reaches Los Angeles, Sophie, soaking in a pool, rehearses a call she will make to Miranda’s assistant to inform her that she is in LA. She also rehearses getting rejected, with a polite “Oh no, that’s okay, totally understandable!”, often a second-nature response to women. 

I won’t reveal whether or not the pair meet. Instead I’ll focus on the wide shot of a terrace pool in California at the end of their journey. Sophie and Isabelle have their backs to the camera, and lean on the edge of the pool, surveying Los Angeles which sprawls in front of them. To the right, a pink glow emerges from behind the hills in the horizon. In the pursuit of creative fulfilment and chasing your filmmaking idols, it’s nice to bask in the journey, every once in a while. Soak it all up, like a sponge. 

L.A. Tea Time will be playing on 23 February as part of the Hyperlinks festival.

Visit the Hyperlinks site for more info. 

**********

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an honours thesis on girlhood on screen, and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.

Claire White