September 11, 2003 Jewish Herald-Voice 

Aaron At the Movies:

Insecurity, Money and Greed in the Rag Trade

By Aaron Howard

"Watch your back" is the mantra in the character-driven film "Garmento". Director, writer and producer Michele Maher makes her feature film debut in this dark comedy about greed and corruption in New York's garment industry.
Based on Maher's three-year experience in fashion design and sales, "Garmento" gives us an insider's view of the shmatteh trade. The film is set in the early 1990s at Pancho Ramirez Inc., a fashion house that was at the top of the game in the 70's as a designer jeans trendsetter. A couple of seasons without a hit combined with the failure of a line of padded cup men's underwear has brought Pancho Ramirez close to bankruptcy. 
It is at this low point that the young and innocent Grindy Malone (Katie MacNichol) gets her break by getting hired at Panchos. 
Grindy is the film's protagonist. She fully embraces the fashion life. She also suggests the new designer jean product line the company needs to produce a hit. 
At the beginning of the film, Grindy hasn't a clue that in any game with high financial stakes-film, music, Wall Street, clothing for example-the insiders must know how to wield power, pass on risks and diffuse blame. And watch your back. At any moment you could easily be sliding down a garbage chute with a dozen knives stuck in you.
One of the biggest challenges in a character-driven film is how to create audience empathy when all of the characters are amoral lowlifes. By focusing on Grindy's moral arc downward, writer/director Maher reveals character and keeps the film moving forward. 
The other characters in this ensemble film stay essentially the same. Like Hollywood, creative decisions in the fashion trade are made by a collective. Stay in the trade and you become a "garmento", part of a ruthless breed, willing to counterfeit your own product if it leads to financial success. 
The sharp flavor of the film is experienced through the intimate interactions the garmentos at Pancho Ramirez have with each other. This allows the audience to "look inside" the garment industry practices. As Grindy keeps making "bad choices" at each hurdle in the film narrative, she learns what it takes to be a garmento. The heroine falls. This allows "Garmento" to be a morality play of sorts. A tale for our times.
Bottom line: Tight script. Good characters enhanced by some fine performances. The weak spot of the film is screenwriter Maher's lack of subtext. A great film uses the interaction between characters to reveal the inner lives of the characters more completely. Maher tends to use interaction merely to sketch a set of colorful characters. It's the difference between a three star and a four star film. Give "Garmento" three stars.
"Garmento" opens on September 12 at the Angelika Houston Theatre, 500 Texas Avenue. Phone 713-225-5232 for phone times.