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Swimming out of safe waters 

"There are so many nice people here," Brandon Moss marveled Friday night, as he watched a throng of formally dressed Orlandoans file past him in an informally structured receiving line. Though he was merely welcoming an audience to the cinema that's nestled within the wooded environs of Disney Institute, the New Jersey-born film producer and founder of the local NMN Entertainment might as well have been casting his gaze toward the TV cameras at the Golden Globe Awards.

That would come later, he hoped; for now, he was content to finally show his comedy, "Alligator Alley" -- which had been lensed in just 15 days last spring at a variety of area locations -- to a capacity crowd of supporters, cast members and crew personnel. In the coming week, he was bound for Los Angeles, where the film would be presented to potential distributors. This evening's program was an intentionally partisan send-off, a stacking of the emotional deck before "Alligator Alley" went before the eyes of viewers who would be less impressed by its largely Central Floridian cast and clever employment of Gatorland and Sportstown Billiards as dramatic backgrounds.

A boyish grin never leaving his face, Moss bear-hugged just about everyone he could get his hands on in the remaining minutes before the screening commenced. This was a good time for Florida filmmaking, he enthused, citing such successes as "The Blair Witch Project" and the "The First of May" (the big-budget, family-friendly collaboration between industry pros and Valencia Community College students) as examples. Some positive local press, he intimated, would be the icing on the cake.

"You can at least write that you liked my shirt," he playfully suggested. As if I'm above that.

New-wave cinema

As we all saw when the lights went down, "Alligator Alley" is no "Blair Witch Project," but neither is it a saccharin successor to "The First of May." It's instead a mixed bag of romantic tomfoolery, gun-toting melodrama and arch banter that owes equal debts to Seinfeld and Tarantino. That may confuse some potential buyers -- but only the ones who aren't used to dealing with young creative types who are still out to wow the world with everything but the kitchen sink.

In the film, two brothers (Sila Agavale and David Noroña, who also penned the script) chuck their blue-collar jobs in Mississippi to seek lives of leisure as boat captains in the Keys. During their automotive trek to the Sunshine State, Agvale's hotheaded ex-con loses a billiards bet to a shady stranger, only to imprison the man in the brothers' trunk in a misguided attempt to get his money back. The captive's familial ties to big business lay the groundwork for a subtle criticism of Florida's overdevelopment boom. Now there's a message that's worthy of export.

The scenes most likely to strike a deep chord with locals, however, are the ones in which Noroña's Jay Taylor falls in love with a professional mermaid who works at Weeki Wachee Springs. The script never questions Taylor's moony-eyed belief that she's a bona fide celebrity, and neither do we. "Alligator Alley" understands that living in Central Florida means balancing romantic idealism with second-tier cultural options ... and that even the best of us must sometimes break the law to make the two add up.

Stirring the croc pot

Moss and Noroña were joined by director Britt Nichols for a postscreening question-and-answer session. Moss had the most fun, claiming to have invented the Steadicam technology that helped give the film its highly professional look.

All three appeared relieved that their year of work had reached fruition. They finished the film on Christmas Day, they noted with heavy sighs.

"It looked like a pretty good time," an audience member judged. "But what's the one thing you would do different?"

"Probably have more money," was the trio's only half-joking consensus.

The well-wishers then adjourned to a reception in the plush Gathering Place lounge. Ubiquitous actor Mark Lainer, who has a cameo in "Alligator Alley," discussed the acceptance of one of his self-directed works into the latest short-film contest sponsored by Coca-Cola. Todd Thompson and Balinda DeSantis -- whose short, "The Paper Route," bowed at the Institute last year -- were looking forward to the spring shoot of their "Shooting Blanks," which will star Florida Film Festival habitué Seymour Cassel.

Outside, Noroña expressed hopeful anxiety about the coming week's West Coast trip. Having supported himself solely with thespian work since graduating from Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University five years ago, he knew he was already beating the odds.

"People aren't this generous in L.A.," Noroña compared, and he should know: He's lived there for the last three years.

Before I left, I made sure to reassure Moss that I really liked his shirt. If life was about to bat him around a bit, it wasn't going to start with me.


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