Only in Miami? Not exactly.

“I was born in a city founded on vices,” a voiceover narrator intones at the start of the made-in-Miami drama Magic City Memoirs. “Growing up here is a gift and a curse.” The narrator, whose identity won’t be revealed until the end of the film, claims to belong to a generation addicted to “the lifestyle: Sex, drugs and hip-hop.” This is the first of countless times in which writer-director Aaron J. Salgado presents the attitudes and dilemmas of his characters as if they were a phenomenon exclusive to Miami.

But the protagonists of Magic City Memoirs could hail from Anytown, U.S.A. There’s Manny (Andres Dominguez), a small-time drug dealer whose father is serving time in prison; Angel (Michael Cardelle), the privileged son of the mayor of Coral Gables (Nestor Serrano); and Mikey (J.R. Villareal), a star athlete whose skill on the baseball field may be his key to a bright future. Take away the bits of Spanglish the boys sprinkle into their talk, or a briefly-glimpsed quinceañera celebration at the Biltmore that serves no actual purpose in the plot, and Magic City Memoirs could be set in Los Angeles or Long Island exactly as written.

At least Miami looks fantastic in the film, all dark shadows and neon colors, impossibly bright sunlight and inviting azure seas. As a visual stylist, Salgado is incapable of framing an uninteresting shot, and the exceedingly gifted cinematographer Gustavo Penna gives the modest production a polished, big-budget sheen (including some stunning overhead views of the city that would put even Michael Bay to shame).

The talented cast do their best to invest their stock characters with some inner life: Villarreal is particularly good at portraying Mikey’s uncertainty over which direction his future should take; Dominguez conveys Manny’s self-destructive, self-serving habits with brusque conviction; and Cardelle hits notes of genuine pathos when Angel feels wounded or betrayed by his friends, whom he considers brothers.

But the story of Magic City Memoirs is dispiritingly rote and unoriginal – drugs are bad for you, kids! – and the movie has to spin its wheels to pad out a brief running time of 97 minutes: This is one memoir that could have used more substance. The film also fails the test any character-driven piece must pass: When people sit down to engage in small talk, their conversations ring forced and arch, and the picture edges into the amateurish. Magic City Memoirs is a noble but flawed attempt to do justice to the experience of growing up in South Florida: The movie is an OK place to visit, but you sure wouldn’t want to live there.

Movie Info

Cast: Andres Dominguez, J.R. Villarreal, Michael Cardelle, Julio Mechoso, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Natalie Martinez, Nestor Serrano.

Writer-director: Aaron J. Salgado.

Producer: Jaydee Freixas.

Running time: 97 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, brief violence, constant drug use, adult themes. Plays at 6:45 p.m. Friday at Gusman and 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Regal South Beach.


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