2 out of 5 stars

Dripping, Day-Glo green opening credits are an early indication that Mexican director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s feature debut isn’t to be taken seriously; a hint confirmed shortly afterwards when a demented man starts gobbling down a pan of bubbling eyeballs… which turn out to be bingo balls.

Unfortunately, while there are obviously comedic elements, it’s never apparent how lightly we’re expected to take Bingo Hell. Much of it verges on the absurd and the intensely coloured visual style is often far from realistic, but there’s also a clear aspiration to indict consumerism.

As a result, just when it ought to be out-and-out funny it can pull back into seriousness, and just when it ought to be serious it can be silly. At the same time, an abundance of activity (and snappy edits) doesn’t fully conceal an absence of solid plot progression, and a misjudged central character makes it difficult to care about her fate.

Lupita (Adriana Barraza) is a single, middle-aged lady in the US community of Oak Springs, hitherto a run-down but friendly place now being overrun by hipsters and tech companies—in shades of the latest Candyman (2021), perhaps, though the gentrification here’s equally a prompt for humour as Lupita curses the vape store, microbrewery, and artisan coffee shop that have appeared on her doorstep.

Many of her neighbours are tempted to sell up to the incomers, but Lupita is adamant—indeed, more than slightly obsessive— in her determination to stay where she is and do what she can to keep the community together. She and other ladies had had earlier rid Oak Springs of gangs, which is an intriguing subtext to Bingo Hell, and one with more potential than the casual gentrification jokes is how it foregrounds the role of older women.

The last straw for Lupita comes when her beloved local bingo hall, a cheap and cheerful place offering haircuts among its prizes, is sold to a stranger (a cackling, gurning Richard Brake) who reopens it as Mr Big$. He drives a car with the licence plate ‘BIG WINN3R’, and is soon giving out prizes in the thousands of dollars, and—it’s obvious to the viewer—feeds off “desperate souls”. (Shades here of Stephen King’s Needful Things, and perhaps ’Salem’s Lot too.)

“Ladies and gentlemen of Oak Springs,” says Mr Big, “I’ve got one question for you… are you feeling lucky? Each and every one of you has a big dream. We all have that one little thing we still yearn for.” Needless to add, the fulfilment of these yearnings comes at a price ungrasped by the locals who trudge, zombie-like, to his bingo hall.

Lupita may not realise his demonic nature straight off, but she’s Mr Big’s sworn enemy from the moment he appears and before he’s even started stamping blood-red dollar signs on his customers’ hands. This means there isn’t much of an arc for her in Bingo Hell, for all that she’s the dominant focus of the film, and for the viewer her snap judgement might even confirm a significant problem with Lupita and thus the movie itself. She may possess the proverbial heart of gold, but nothing else about her is attractive.

She’s nosy, gossipy, easily vexed, petulant, intolerant, mocking, lacking in self-control, and seems to prioritise her own quest to preserve the community far above whatever other members of the community actually want. Indeed, Mr Big quite rightly observes toward the end that she’s a feeder on others, too. A last-minute half-change of heart on Lupita’s part, perhaps the result of the film-makers realising how far from an adorable curmudgeon she is, comes across as unconvincing.

Still, Barraza is terrific (reminiscent of Octavia Spencer in 2019’s Ma), and she plays well against excellent support from L. Scott Caldwell and Bertila Damas as other women of the community—one level-headed and the other avaricious—along with Clayton Landey and Grover Coulson as (relatively) token men unable to resist Mr Big.

Joshua Caleb Johnson is also striking in one of the film’s few young roles, although a subplot about his delinquency is as unsatisfyingly unexplored, as is another about the struggles of drug addiction of Eric (Jonathan Medina), which of course Mr Big seeks to exploit. Unfortunately these performances aren’t enough to save the film, and the over-flashy direction certainly can’t either.

Bingo Hell has the germ of a fine idea. In fact, it might have too many germs of ideas for its own good, but none gets developed and they tend to undermine each other. Lupita, for all her faults, at least knows what she wants, but Bingo Hell isn’t sure… and so, despite some entertaining individual scenes and well-drawn characters, it never comes close to a full house.

USA | 2021 | 85 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • SPANISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Gigi Saul Guerrero.
writers: Shane McKenzie, Gigi Saul Guerrero & Perry Blackshear.
starring: Adriana Barraza, L. Scott Caldwell, Joshua Caleb Johnson & Clayton Landey.

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