Hemet is a real place – a smallish city whose location in the San Jacinto Valley is shown on a map at the beginning of Hemet, Or The Landlady Don’t Drink Tea. Yet in Tony Olmos’ mannered feature, Hemet is also a dystopia and an allegorical space, where the horrifying divisions of today’s America are played out in a barely exaggerated near-tomorrow.
In a future California under martial law, a pandemic of addiction to ‘Psycho-Active Baths Salts’ seems more like a zombie apocalypse, as addled, appetitive ‘salties’ swarm and bite anyone on the streets. A motley crew of people has sought semi-affordable shelter in an ordinary-seeming apartment block. Yet for all the dangers beyond the complex’s perimeter, life inside is also hell, thanks to the despotic live-in landlady who, when she is not humping male escorts or dildoes attached to the wall, relishes nothing more than pitting her tenants against one another in peculiar, perilous power games.
Played – with an incongruity that only enhances her monstrousness – by the film’s screenwriter Brian Patrick Butler in heavy makeup, curmudgeonly old Liz Topham-Myrtle is very much the queen of her domain, passing judgment on all and sundry while herself embodying immorality of the most unconscionable variety, evicting her tenants (when eviction can mean dismemberment or death) on the wildest of whims, playing favourites no less arbitrarily than she shifts allegiances, and actively plotting the arrest or even murder of her neighbours in the full knowledge of just how easily they can be replaced.
Liz is a nightmare, whom several characters – including her own grandson (Jake Golden) – expressly compare to a ‘witch’ and a ‘troll’ for the almost fairytale nature of her wickedness. Yet through her use of faked leg injuries as an excuse to avoid inconveniences, through the hypocrisy of her endless sermonising, through the disarming sociopathy of her conduct, through the open nepotism of her favours, through the way that she demands total loyalty from others while herself readily betraying anyone and everyone (including, in the end, even kin), through the basis of her empire in property, and through her vulgarity, racism, corruption and perversity, Liz is also very much a Trumpian figure. She even refers to her tenants as ‘followers’, and explicitly harbours Presidential ambitions. The way in which she manipulates her tenants – amused, adaptable Martin (Merrick McCartha), grieving would-be avenger Gary (Matthew Rhodes), ‘hipster’ Howie (Pierce Wallace), redneck thug Tank (Nick Young), and even Liz’s own daughter Kate (Aimee La Joie) – to turn against each other and become pawns in her sadistic, self-interested ploy is presented as the culture wars in microcosm.
That is too bad for Rosie Perkins (Kimberley Weinberger). In being young, kind and ‘feminist’, in refusing to submit to abuse from her psychotic musician boyfriend Jason (Aleksander D’Avignon) or others, and in speaking truth to power, Rosie is a natural enemy to everything for which Liz stands, and finds herself being harassed, framed and eventually attacked by the off-the-hook landlady, in what will become a battle of wills for the building and for survival itself.
Yet in Rosie, Hemet, or the Landlady Don’t Drink Tea is also possibly showing us a new Liz in the making, and it seems entirely possible that our youthful heroine will, with time, prove no less a schemer and a tyrant than her current oppressor. That, after all, would appear to be the dog-eat-dog hierarchical model that has taken over from what was once known as the American Dream, in a polarised nation where all now either are exploited, economically desperate and unable to even imagine owning their own home, or else are themselves the exploiter holding all the keys to property, security and the future. From such inherently political materials, Olmos and Butler build a crude, grotesque satire in which everyone’s ugly side is accommodated.
strap: Tony Olmos’ crude dystopian satire pits desperate tenants against a Trumpian lessor – and each other
© Anton Bitel