'The Chosen Ones' ('Las Elegidas'): Cannes Review

A somewhat familiar drama that starts off strong but then loses its way

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna executive produced this second fiction feature from Mexican director David Pablos, which premieres in Cannes' Un Certain Regard.

A 14-year-old girl is forced into prostitution in The Chosen Ones (Las Elegidas), the second fiction feature of Mexican director David Pablos. Executive produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna through their production company, Canana, this is a handsomely shot feature about an important topic that starts off strong but that, like the director’s debut feature, The Life After, becomes less engaging as it enters its final reels. Nonetheless, a Cannes Un Certain Regard berth and its topicality should ensure a decent life at festivals and in the Hispanosphere.

Sofia (Nancy Talamantes) is a natural beauty from Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, with pouty lips and beautiful, dark-blond hair, though her face is still closer to that of a child than a young woman. Nonetheless, she lets her somewhat older boyfriend, Ulises (Oscar Torres), have his way with her in the film’s opening scene (throughout, actual sex is always kept offscreen). The strong-jawed youngster knows she’s only 14 — and without makeup, she also looks it — but brags he started having sex at age 12 and can’t even remember how many girls he’s had since. But he tells Sofia she shouldn’t worry, since he’s “serious about us”.

If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because in a way it is. On the beach, a pensive and uncomfortable Ulises confesses to Sofia that his Dad (Edward Coward) and older brother, Hector (Jose Santillan Cabuto), whom she was introduced to earlier at Dad’s birthday barbeque, are planning to force her to become part of the family business: a prostitution ring she won’t be able to leave. Despite an attempt to escape to the U.S. together by car, Sofia finally ends up exactly where her father-in-law wants her.

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After spending her mornings in a cheap motel that’s guarded by some street kids who look barely older than the protagonist, Sofia has to work evenings and nights in a seedy bordello, where she’s instructed to ask for 500 pesos (about $33) for anything involving penetration and to not dare to make any less than 6000 pesos (just under $400) a night. If some viewers might be wandering whether Ulises simply put on an act to lure Sofia into his family’s web, the startling answer comes about 30 minutes in, when he begs his father to let his girlfriend go and Dad’s seems surprisingly open to the idea, though on one condition: Ulises needs to find another girl to take Sofia’s place.

This devil’s pact between a ruthless father and his love-sick son, which will force him to do everything he’s done with Sofia but with the added complication he can’t fall in love again, is the most interesting thing about Pablos’ screenplay, which otherwise contains a lot of elements already seen in countless other films about (child) prostitution. Initially, the narrative goes back and forth between Sofia’s ghastly first experiences in the brothel — she doesn’t even know how to put on a condom — and Ulises, who finally musters the courage to chat up a random girl in the market, Marta (Leidi Gutierrez), an exceptionally cute and sweet 17-year-old who’ll have to be groomed to be Sofia’s replacement.

Carolina Costa’s cinematography has a clear preference for symmetrical compositions, which function as a sort of counterpoint to the greatly imbalanced lives of the protagonists. Several times, johns and Sofia (re-baptized Andrea at work), simply face the camera — and thus the audience — while the sound of sex is heard on the soundtrack, which handsomely avoids having to show something that would at the very minimum be fictional child pornography, while at the same time suggesting something about the apathetic emotional state of most of the johns but especially of Sofia.

Indeed, if any conclusions can be drawn after just two films, David Pablos’s cinema is one that gives a lot of space to bodies, which can suggest or even carry the marks of the inner state of the protagonists. Here, Sofia is frequently bruised from being beaten up by those that try to intimidate her or keep her in check, though clearly, cut off from her family and former life against her will, she’s black and blue on the inside as well. And Talamantes, in a subdued but nonetheless impressive performance, inhabits the transformation from infatuated girl to zombiefied sex-machine fully, even though a glimmer of hope in her eyes always remains.

Pablos and editors Aina Calleja and Miguel Sverdfinger's make simple but very effective use of repetition in the film's second half, which suggests something about the cyclical nature of the country's struggle with prostitution and violence. But nonetheless, Pablos runs into narrative trouble when the interesting back-and-forths between Sofia and Ulises become just two strands in a bundle of stories also vying for attention. These include the story of a man who might be able to help Sofia; new targets Marta and Perla (Alicia Quinonez); and one of several of Sofia’s colleagues whose children are raised in Ulises’s Dad and brother’s household (both their girlfriends are also prostitutes). This piling on of narratives dilutes the push-pull dynamics of the central relationship that provided the film with the necessary tension. The question of whether Sofia even wants to be saved by Ulises after all that his family has put her through should have been at the heart of the film. But amid so many other characters and their pressing stories, this question gets lost somewhat in the fray.

Production companies: Canana, Manny Films
Cast: Nancy Talamantes, Oscar Torres, Leidi Gutierrez, Jose Santillan Cabuto, Alicia Quinonez, Edward Coward, Raquel Presa
Writer-Director: David Pablos
Producer: Pablo Cruz
Executive producers: Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Marta Nunez Puerto, Arturo Sampson, Walter Von Bortsel
Director of photography: Carolina Costa
Production designer: Daniela Schneider
Editors: Aina Calleja, Miguel Sverdfinger
Music: Carlo Ayllhon
Casting: Luis Rosales
Sales: Mundial

No rating, 105 minutes

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