If you go to the late Elizabeth Peña's imdb page, you'll discover her final film role was in an untitled project by director Ari Gold that also stars Rory Culkin and is currently in post production. Girl on the Edge, which plays Monday as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival, is the last completed picture the New Jersey-born, Cuban-American actress appears in.
In director-co-writer Jay Silverman's Girl on the Edge, Peña plays Esther, a counselor for troubled youth at a rural rehab and horse ranch, where she develops a soft spot for Hannah Green (Taylor Spreitler), a 15-year-old from Southern California dealing with drug, booze and date-rape issues.
Girl on the Edge is not a great indie, falling somewhere between an after-school special and a Lifetime movie. Spreitler, who viewers of ABC Family's Melissa & Joey should recognize, does give a pretty convincing performance, and it's nice to see veteran actors Peña, Peter Coyote and Gil Bellows get some work.
What's more interesting to me is that Peña could have been method acting. Esther explains she also battled substance abuse in an attempt to bond with the distant Hannah. According to Peña's death certificate, she suffered from cirrhosis of the liver “due to alcohol,” a disease she had been battling for months but became acute shortly before she died Oct. 14 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 55.
In recent years, Peña was known to millions of television viewers as Sofia Vergara's mother on Modern Family. And her voice was known to millions of children thanks to Pixar's The Incredibles, in which she portrayed Mirage.
But there was a time, especially the 1980s/'90s, when Peña was Hollywood's Latina “it girl.” Her credits include *batteries not included, Blue Steel, Jacob's Ladder, The Waterdance, Lone Star, Rush Hour, Tortilla Soup and La Bamba, which has a NBFF retrospective screening Wednesday night at Lido Live. My favorite role of Peña's was Carmen, the live-in maid and piece on the side for man of the house Richard Dreyfus, in Paul Mazursky's hilarious Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
Mackenzie Phillips, another veteran actress who knows a thing or seven about substance abuse, also turns up in Girl on the Edge, as Hannah's unwelcome and estranged mother. In the trainwreck's first encounter with the ranch staff, Peña, with that face that seems to be cast in cement, shoots a look with her cold eyes that says more than any dialogue could.
Girl on the Edge rolls at 5 p.m. Monday at Island Cinemas in Newport Beach. Tickets are $14. Visit newportbeachfilmfest.com.tix to scoop some up.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.