'California': Rio de Janeiro Review

Courtesy of Mira Filmes
Fresh, natural, melancholy and true.

The California dreaming of a Brazilian girl in the '80s.

In 1984, presidential elections were held in Brazil and the first Smiths album was released, and it’s an index of the truthfulness of Brazilian Marina Person’s feature debut California that while the former event barely registers in the lives of its middle-class teens, the latter is transformational.

It’s further evidence, if any were needed, that there's far more to the current Brazilian cinema than favelas, fighting and navel-gazing philosophy. A standard tale of teen confusion with a depth and interest which derives from the sense that it’s something remembered more than something imagined, California tackles its standard issue subjects — loss of innocence, sexual confusion, social isolation — with an unusual care and respect, as embodied primarily in a central role engagingly played by Clara Gallo, debuting.

Estela (Gallo) lives in Sao Paolo with her typically stifling father, Beto (Paulo Miklos), and mother, Cris (Virginia Cavendish), and hangs out with her fun but conventional friends Alessandra (Livia Gijon) and Joana (Leticia Fagnani). But all this is not enough for her, and Estela escapes on the one hand into music (she’s particularly fond of David Bowie) and — as an extension of what the music represents to her — into the dream of a journey she’ll make to California. Here as in so many films, it's is an imaginary space for her to escape into, and a place to see her Mom’s brother Carlos (Caio Blat), a music journalist.

For all intents and purposes, the film makes clear, Estela is in love with Uncle Carlos. But, sick with AIDS, he returns from California to Sao Paolo to be looked after by the family. Estela’s trip will not now take place, forcing her to face some home truths about who she wants to be, and about who she wants to be with.

Will it be blonde surfer Xande (Giovanni Giallo), a dream catch according to her friends, or JM (Caio Horowicz), a tangle-haired, gaberdine-wearing Tim Burton/Robert Smith lookalike who’s arrived at the school mid-semester carrying an air of mystery and records by The Cure? A clue: whenever JM’s around, the music’s great, but with Xande it’s generally awful. (The exchanges between Estela and JM, the former trying to figure out what makes the latter tick, are the film’s strongest scenes.)

As a narrative, there’s nothing new here. But the treatment is underpinned by the empathy that the script delivers to not only Estela, who presumably represents Person as she remembers herself, but also to characters who she doesn’t like so much. Less worried about the drama than about the people who comprise it, California records conversations in their entirety, sometimes a little dully, but always with the air of truth, the script aware that large changes can arise from the smallest details of a conversation.

LIke a cloud over Venice Beach, there’s a distinctive air of sadness hanging over California, just as there is over the characterization of Estela. But the spark and freshness which runs through the project and which is embodied in the uninhibited performance of Gallo does not extend to the figure of Carlos, a problematic role which Blat can do little with as he shifts too quickly from galvanizing life force to wheelchair-ridden invalid, incessantly smoking as an index of his illness. The figure of the maid Denisete (Gilda Nomacce), happily spouting traditional love remedies, seems to be a private homage to a real person but doesn’t fit well into this particular story.

Flora Dias’s photography is effective but unshowy and through certain scenes is authentically evocative, as during a sad, rainy car drive back from the beach to Sao Paolo. Music is key; it’s how Estela relates to those she loves, and early '80s audiophiles will have all sorts of fun as they register that Joy Division, Cocteau Twins and more make up their memories much as they make up Estela’s imagination. The elated opening bars of The Caterpillar by the Cure is used particularly effectively, and is cleverly counter-pointed with the same band’s Killing an Arab.

Production company: Mira Filmes, Lauper Films

Cast: Clara Gallo, Livia Gijon, Virginia Cavendish, Leticia Fagnani, Giovanni Giallo, Paulo Miklos, Caio Horowicz, Caio Blat

Director: Marina Person

Screenwriters: Marina Person, Mariana Verissimo, Francisco Guarnieri

Producers: Gustavo Rosa de Moura, Giuilia Setembrino, Carmem Maia, Marina Person

Director of photography: Flora Dias

Production designer: Ana Mara Abreu

Editor: Bernardo Barcellos

Casting director:

Sales: Films Boutique

No rating, 85 minutes

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