At long last, Jawbreaker writer/director Darren Stein’s debut feature Sparkler is finally available after fading to time! Look no further than the stunning cast roster (which includes 90s favorites like Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jamie Kennedy, as well as seasoned gems such as Veronica Cartwright and Glenn Shadix) with Stein behind the camera to discover a fraction of what makes Sparkler so special. Park Overall leads the pack as Melba, whose lovable character adds a proper dash of feel-good pizazz. A 1997 queer indie dramedy may not seem the most likely of surprises in 2023, but here we are—Sparkler emerges as an absolutely delightful road trip film brimming with heart.
Melba daydreams about life as a rich person; though her trailer may be “the best one in the park,” Melba obsessively fills out every sweepstakes she can get ahold of in the hopes that she will win it big. Phone psychic Wanda (Octavia Spencer) says she sees Melba “surrounded by three kings.” Melba doesn’t know what to make of this, but when she comes home to find her lover, Flint (Don Harvey), screwing her friend in their trailer, she sees this as a sign. Melba retreats to temporarily stay with her eccentric mother, Sherri (Grace Zabriskie), instead. After getting dolled up and heading out to bar/restaurant The Backwoods Inn, Melba comes upon three much younger men that just may be her ticket out.
L.A. natives headed for Las Vegas, all three seem to have differing views about Melba at first glance. They are trying to win rent money, but view Melba through a harsh lens. In particular, Brad (Prinze Jr.) an aspiring Hollywood agent hoping to make it big, seems to not-so-indirectly refer to Melba as “trailer trash.” Sexually-questioning Joel (Steven Petrarca) longs to ditch her. Trent (Kennedy) seems to be the only genuine one among them, agreeing to a simple dance with Melba. He sees her as a “sparkler.” While Melba is accurately described as if “somebody morphed a human being and a disco ball,” her charms shine even brighter with Overall filling the character’s ambitious shoes. Just as the old adage says, we should never judge a book by its cover—one of the many lessons Sparkler conveys with indie-movie ease.
After an initial encounter, Sherri points out that one of Melba’s precious earrings has gone missing. Melba, remembering Wanda’s predictions, takes to the road to meet up with her three kings to reclaim her earring, and moreover to rediscover her self-worth. The flick really takes off once the action fully shifts to Las Vegas. Melba tracks down her old friend, Dottie Delgato (Cartwright), leading her down a rabbit hole to the trashy club The Crack. Once the signature “Lady Luck” of The Tropicana, Dottie is now a shameless stripper deeply entangled with the club’s butch owner, Ed (Sandy Martin). Cartwright completely steals the show—a strip tease introduction to Dottie is one of the film’s highlights, while later moments as she attempts to seduce Brad or bluntly approach her history with Flint ramp up the campy nature of the script. Flint’s relentless pursuit of Melba gives Sparkler a de-facto villain one will love to hate.
Genuinely filmed in Las Vegas, I had so much fun spotting various landmarks and hotels as they are weaved into the film’s plot. Vibrant colors and quirky costumes, the bread and butter of Stein’s filmography, help to maintain a visual and tonal consistency that will be further explored in his other projects, G.B.F. and Jawbreaker. Sparkler stays aesthetically queer through and through, while remaining an obvious time capsule of the 90s that was an absolute joy to explore for the very first time. Maybe some of the guys are underdeveloped, or the ending a bit too abrupt—who really cares when a film feels this comforting to watch. In depicting Melba’s warm personality and the power of friendship, Darren Stein has made yet another undersung feature that speaks to the outsider in us all.
Sparkler is now available to rent or buy on most streaming platforms, including Amazon, YouTube, Apple, and Vudu.