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Down and Out With the Dolls

Band-waggin'

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Three-chord rock bands form and dissolve faster than you can reload your CD-changer, so Kurt Voss' unprepossessing comedy Down and Out With the Dolls is largely an exercise in blink-or-you'll-miss-it narrative: Chronicle the short, mercurial life of an all-girl quartet as they raise a ruckus in Portland, Oregon.

The girls, all in their 20s, are a fictional but familiar lot. Kali (Nicole Barrett), an idealistic singer and guitarist, assembles the band, partly inspired by her major crush on a locally bred punk-rock star named Levi. Prima donna lead singer Fauna (Zoë Poledouris), who just broke up with her oh-now-he's-gay boyfriend, thus dissolving their own band, thinks being a Doll will get her into Levi's straight-legs -- as well as in the door at the indie record label where he's the star property. Reggie (Kinnie Starr) is the tomboy drummer, stringing along her doormat boyfriend while keeping time with girls on the side. And their story is narrated by down-to-earth bassist Lavender (Melody Moore), whose passion to rock out leaves her record-store-owner boyfriend dusting his phonograph needle alone.

Writer/director Voss seems comfortable in the terrain: The four leads, the supporting players and even the extras all look like they were plucked straight from any big city's rock scene, not some soap-commercial casting call. (Starr, in fact, is a real-life rocker.) The Doll House, where the girls live, is a shaggy warren with a cramped, ratty basement. And when the Dolls lose their practice space because someone left a pile of poop in a bucket there, you get the feeling Voss nicked the anecdote from some buddy's true-life adventures. Likewise with the aging British burnout (played by Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister) who takes up residence in Fauna's bedroom closet.

Shot on video for that handheld, immediate feel, Down and Out has the easygoing energy of filmmakers interested in honoring a subculture as well as in telling a story. There's plenty of incident -- including a knock-down drag-out party that climaxes with two Dolls in a fistfight -- but Voss portrays everyone from calculating Fauna to earnest Kali as strictly life-sized.

On the other hand, like the band it chronicles, Down and Out is rough around the edges, and not always endearingly. That's partly a function of the acting: While three of the four Dolls are nicely played, Poledouris goes cartoonishly broad with Fauna, and many of the supporting actors are subpar, too. And given that Voss has several feature films to his credit, the sound quality of the dialogue is surprisingly muddy, as though it were recorded live and never revisited.

Mostly, though, Down and Out, while good-hearted, is terribly lightweight, the kind of film that takes its characters at face and pretty much leaves them there. It's that cool single with a fun B-side somebody tried to stretch into a whole album.

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