By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Directors Liz Lambert tells her remarkable true story in this documentary which serves as a time capsule of the city of Austin, Texas, during the late 1990s. During this particular time, Austin is on the verge of some major changes. Lambert decides to invest in some inexpensive real estate when she purchases the cheap and rundown San Jose Motel in south, central Austin. But before Lambert completely remodels the property into something more hip and fancy, she documents her experience as she manages one of Austin’s poorest and seediest motels.
In capturing these unique moments as the owner of the San Jose, and compiling them into a documentary film, she presents a moving portrait of the motel’s guests and residents who struggled with poverty, addiction, and mental health disorders. Though the motel is intended as temporary lodging for travelers, a lot of the people who stayed at the San Jose often remained there much longer than they should have. As the rates for a room were rather cheap, the motel would attract people who could not afford more expensive, long-term housing.
Lambert’s documentary definitely has a built-in audience with people who have lived in Austin since the era captured in the film or even before that. There is enough emotionally compelling content to appeal to anyone unfamiliar with Austin’s history. However, the story will resonate more and have a greater impact with people who have a stronger, emotional attachment to the city. Austin has changed tremendously since this film was first shot and that metamorphisis is presented here. The documentary never chooses a side on the issue of gentrification, but merely serves as reminder that this process doesn’t actually solve the problem of poverty, but instead relocates it.