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The future looks both alluring and terrifying for Angela, the 12-year-old heroine of Ruben Mendoza’s coming-of-age road movie Wandering Girl. Winner of the Grand Prix for best film at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last month, as well as picking up the prize for best score, Mendoza’s fourth feature is a lyrical Latin American gem made by a majority female crew and an almost entirely nonprofessional female cast. Strong performances, exquisite visuals and a light dusting of gritty feminist attitude should secure this France-Colombia co-production further festival bookings and potential interest from niche cinephile platforms.
Big-screen debutante Sofia Paz Jara gives a bewitching, beautifully poised lead performance as Angela, newly orphaned just as she enters the foothills of adolescence. She never knew her mother, who died in childbirth, while the womanizing playboy father who raised her has just been killed in a road accident. His funeral brings together Angela and her three older half-sisters (Carolina Ramirez, Lina Marcela Sanchez, Maria Camila Mejia), all from different mothers, for the first time. Fearing Angela will end up in state care, the older trio hatch a plan to transport her 900 miles across Colombia to live with an aunt she has never even met.
The picaresque cross-country journey that makes up most of Wandering Girl is both literal and metaphorical, with the intensely observant Angela absorbing lessons from her step-siblings about how to navigate her looming transition to womanhood. She learns about menstruation, bodily changes, tattoos, pregnancy, deadbeat boyfriends, bad sex and some rudimentary feminist rules about men: “Don’t let them choose you — you choose them.” She also witnesses the ever-present threat of male sexual violence firsthand.
In one of their more fractious moments, the older siblings exchange spiky barbs over their different lifestyle choices, educational opportunities and complex love-hate feelings toward the father they barely knew. Elegantly filmed in a single roving shot, some of this bitchy shade-throwing party is great fun: “You’ve never had to struggle and you don’t even have an ass!” But it ends on a wrenching twist when Angela replays her father’s final tender voicemail message, silencing her adult sisters with the unspoken implication that he loved her more than them.
Mendoza is unabashedly fixated on female intimacy, his camera frequently lingering on young semi-naked women as they bathe, dress and groom themselves. But it never feels like a prurient male gaze at work, largely because the POV is always a surrogate for Angela’s curiosity about her own pubescent body. There are pleasing echoes here of other recent sister-centric coming-of-age films, notably Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang and In Bloom by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, but without their darker dimensions.
Spanning a lean 82 minutes, Wandering Girl is finely honed and full of quietly sublime visual poetry. The plot may be flimsy, and a couple of episodes feel slightly too engineered for maximum melodrama, but Mendoza and his highly engaging ensemble cast mostly hit the right notes. Standout sequences include a heavily symbolic dreamlike subplot in which Angela wanders alone through verdant woodland, an inspired balletic dance-off between Angela and a mechanical road digger and a trip to the beach featuring some bravura underwater camerawork. The prize-winning score by Las Anez and Edson Velandia, woven from intertwined female voices, is another classy element in a mostly spellbinding package.
Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production company: Dia Fragma Fabrica de Peliculas SAS
Cast: Sofia Paz Jara, Carolina Ramirez, Lina Marcela Sanchez, Maria Camila Mejia
Director-screenwriter: Ruben Mendoza
Producer: Daniel Garcia
Cinematographers: Sofia Oggioni, Ruben Mendoza
Music: Las Anez, Edson Velandia
Editors: Andrea Chignoli, Ruben Mendoza
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