Now that Sparkler, the directorial feature debut of Darren Stein (Jawbreaker) is more readily available, let’s dive in with a review.
Sparkler is a blast from the past. The 1997 road trip, written by Stein and Catherine Eads, feels like the kind of low-budget (queer) indie that was pervasive at the time, but is rarely seen nowadays. It’s a film that offers laughs, heart and charm in a low stakes adventure that still touches on significant, meaningful issues.
Melba (Park Overall, Empty Nest) is a married woman living in a glammed-up trailer. She has a relatively simple life: she diligently plays the sweepstakes, consults her mother Sherri (Grace Zabriskie, Twin Peaks)’s phone psychic for life advice, and she’s married to Flint (Don Harvey), a lowlife dirtbag who takes advantage of her kindness.
After discovering Flint fucking another woman, Melba dresses up for a night out at the local watering hole, where she meets Trent (Jamie Kennedy), Brad (Freddie Prinze Jr), and Joel (Steven Petraca), three twenty-somethings en route to Vegas to gamble for rent money. A series of circumstances align the foursome, so that even when the boys attempt to ditch the older woman, she keeps re-entering their lives for adventures and life lessons.
Despite a slight premise, Sparkler dazzles thanks to earnest performances, offbeat comedy, and surprisingly complex emotional beats. The key selling feature is Overall as Melba, a simple woman who appreciates life’s little pleasures despite having her light dimmed by an abusive husband. She’s not an idiot savant in a clichéd Hollywood way Hollywood (see: Forrest Gump), but her kind heart and innocence make it easy to root for her. The film gets a lot of mileage out of the audience’s fear that her naivety and generosity will make her vulnerable to predators seeking to take advantage.
Ironically that’s the three boys to a certain extent. Sparkler works in large part because Melba’s three kings are kinda shitty dudes: Joel and Brad don’t actually like her, they mock her behind her back and they plot to abandon her at every opportunity. The exception is Trent, who is kind-hearted like Melba, but he is easily swayed by his cynical, occasionally mean-spirited friends.
That’s not to say that Brad and Joel are only cruel assholes. Brad is arguably the least developed of the three (Joel has his own satisfying mini-arc involving a recently dissolved engagement to a girl named Sara), but even he is humanized by his interactions with Melba’s high school friend, Dottie Delgato (Veronica Cartwright, Alien), an aging Vegas showgirl.
Dottie is classic Vegas sex worker – she’s all leather pants, cheap wigs and sexual innuendo, particularly with Brad. She is also Sparkler’s showiest character: a sexy vamp who is in a surprisingly complex lesbian relationship with Ed (Sandy Martin), the butch owner of the rundown club The Crack.
What makes her more interesting is how Dottie clearly loves Ed, even while taking her for granted. She makes backhanded compliments about Ed’s cooking to Melba, dismisses their shared home as a “dump” where she doesn’t pay rent and eagerly looks for an opportunity to fuck Brad, but their reunion at film’s end is proof of Dottie’s love and affection for her partner. They have built a life together, even if Dottie fantasizes about something more conventionally heterosexual. It’s a fascinatingly complex queer relationship that considers the spectrum of human sexuality (in 1997 no less!)
That complexity is evident in multiple relationships throughout the film. Trent and Melba have such an easygoing chemistry that it’s hard not to root for them to get together by the mid-way point of the film. That easy-going element between character is particularly evident in Sparkler‘s biggest emotional moment: when Melba confesses to Joel how much of herself she sees in him. Ditto the film’s second best beat when Trent responds to Joel’s secret in a completely supportive and affirming way.
Finally, considering the film’s tendency to lean into the late-90s trend of grungy violence, it is worth acknowledging how Eads and Stein find a balance for Flint. The way the character flits between the role of asshole, dangerous abuser, and total loser is commendable; it would be easy to depict Flint as a villainous caricature, but it doesn’t happen. (Bonus points for the innovative use of a fishbowl lens for the scene when Flint is caught in his underwear by a camera crew. It’s a weird, almost surreal scene that would feel right at home in a British comedy)
The Bottom Line: Sparkler is a little indie gem that is equal parts funny, dark and heartfelt. Featuring multiple great performances, particularly Overall and Kennedy, this queer gem is well worth seeking out. 4/5
Sparkler is now available to rent and stream on multiple platforms