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No cinephile will mistake a film from Mexican director Michel Franco for a comedy, and that trend continues with his latest feature, the dour and exacting April’s Daughters (Hijas de Abril). Franco is most famous for his 2012 Un Certain Regard winner After Lucia, about teenage bullying in Mexico, and 2015’s Chronic, which cast Tim Roth as a Los Angeles palliative care worker with some strange compulsions. The director’s growing reputation, based on these standouts, should help his latest, another Un Certain Regard premiere, get noticed internationally.
But April’s Daughters, which Roth executive produced and which explores the prickly complexity of motherhood and filial attachment, is most closely related to Franco’s little-seen 2013 drama Through the Eyes, which also explored motherly devotion gone wrong. Again minutely observed and framed with great precision, this finally has a few too many characters and twists to become a fully satisfying drama.
When 17-year-old Valeria (Valeria Becerril) first appears onscreen, naked, with long, blondish locks, an innocent face and a pregnant belly, she brings to mind no one less than Eve in Van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece.” Her Adam is called Mateo (Enrique Arrizon), a dark, curly haired teen who looks like the lovechild of Louis Garrel and Darren Criss, though with more soigne stubble than either. The two are in love and also still very much in lust, and it is their coital moaning we hear when the film starts — though Franco mischievously opens on Valeria’s older and plainer half-sister, Clara (Joanna Larequi), who’s preparing an omelet in the kitchen, oblivious to the bedroom noises she must have been hearing for at least the last five or six months.
Both siblings live in a gorgeous little beach house in Puerto Vallarta that is owned by their Spanish mother, Abril (Emma Suarez, the title character from Almodovar’s recent Julieta). However, Valeria has implored Clara not to tell their absent mom about her condition, though clearly Clara hasn’t kept that promise, as soon Abril arrives just to check in on her daughters.
As in his previous films, Franco’s storytelling is austere rather than melodramatic and greatly aided by the visual precision of cinematographer Yves Cape’s framing. There’s an early scene in which Abril asks Valeria to prepare some food, and mom asks her daughter whether she’s happy she’s back and, after a short hesitation, Valeria answers in the affirmative. But the image tells a completely different story. By having positioned his camera perpendicular to and between the kitchen counter and the kitchen island, Cape creates a strong central perspective, with all the lines converging in the center, where Abril and Valeria are standing and cooking. But the perspective also suggests how Valeria is feeling: trapped with nowhere to go, which is exactly the opposite of what she is telling her mother.
A similarly revealing shot tells audiences everything they need to know about the relationship between Mateo and his domineering father (Hernan Mendoza), who refuses to enter the hospital room where Valeria just had her baby, demanding that his son come outside instead. The camera remains inside, however, with Mateo not only towered over by his taller and portlier father in the corridor, but looking visually trapped within the door frame. There are also a lot of small details that help tease out some underlying themes, like the fact food is constantly being prepared and eaten, and Valeria and Mateo both get big crying scenes, suggesting there aren’t that many differences between what the newborn does all day and what they are doing.
But all the illuminating mise-en-scene and framing in the world can’t compensate for a screenplay that has some focus issues. Franco’s previous dramas usually had one or two main characters, and here there are a few more, with the film jumping back and forth between Valeria, Abril and Mateo and, to a lesser extent, Clara (the “daughters” of the title is a bit of a misnomer). The film wants to be a character study of a small group or a portrait of family dynamics gone wrong, but because the perspective keeps shifting back and forth, there’s limited room for each character to really develop, and the individual psychology feels a little short-changed. This becomes especially problematic after the film’s midway point, when Abril causes the power balance to shift completely, reshuffling the narrative deck. After that, a few more radical decisions are in store, and with each new twist it becomes harder to follow the decision-making process of each character.
Suarez plays a busybody and overbearing mother who wants to be in control to an unhealthy extent; at the same time, having a granddaughter to look after has started to remind her of her younger days as a mother, setting in motion a very inappropriate rejuvenation on more than one level. It’s a complex character and the actress sells it, for the most part, even if the reasoning behind each increasingly desperate action or decision becomes more speculative. Arrizon’s Mateo is a fascinating but also rather unlikely character: a naive, 17-year-old sex god who’s as pretty as he is loyal and unquestioning, a hard combination that the actor struggles to make credible, especially after the action shifts to Guadalajara and then Mexico City. Becerril, as Valeria, fares somewhat better, though her character, too, behaves inconsistently in the film’s last reel — though defenders of the film might suggest that’s a trait she must have inherited from her mother.
Production company: Lucia Films
Cast: Joanna Larequi, Valeria Becerril, Enrique Arrizon, Emma Suarez, Hernan Mendoza, Jose Angel Garcia, Monica del Carmen
Writer-Director: Michel Franco
Producers: Michel Franco, Lorenzo Vigas, Moises Zonana, Jorge Weisz
Executive producers: Tim Roth, Rodolfo Cova, David Zonana, Gabriel Ripstein
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Miguel Ramirez
Costume designer: Evelyn Robles
Editors: Jorge Weisz, Michel Frano
Sales: MK2/Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 103 minutes
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