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CANNES – The ripple effect of grief spreads through ever-darkening waters in Mexican writer-director Michel Franco’s disturbing second feature. More than the loss referenced in the title, however, After Lucia is about bullying, reflecting on how the crippling isolation of adolescence creates ideal prey in a culture of violence. The brutal drama packs a wallop, but despite its topicality, is probably too dour and unrelenting to reach beyond festival audiences.
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The film is of a piece stylistically with Franco’s debut, Daniel & Ana, which premiered in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2009. Austerity and rigorous control are his signature notes, with an unflinching realism marked by extended silences and a distinct preference for conveying information via oblique glimpses rather than in dialogue. Only diegetic music is heard, and Chuy Chavez’s camera rarely strays from static compositions. It could almost be a throwback to the filmmaking principles of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 manifesto.
Following the death of his wife in a car accident, depressed Roberto (Hernan Mendoza) moves with his teenage daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ia) from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City. An established professional chef, he has a job lined up, while she settles into a new high school. Communication between father and daughter is strained, not from any shortage of affection on either side, but because Roberto is still too shellshocked to connect with anyone around him. This initially creates tension at the restaurant, where he shows little patience with kitchen staff.
By contrast, Alejandra appears to have no trouble making friends, slotting in with ease among a group of cool kids who invite her to join them for a weekend house party. Attracted to José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), she ends up after too many drinks having sex with him in a bathroom, aware but seemingly untroubled by the fact that he’s filming them on his phone-cam. But when she returns home, the ping of an email lets her know the video has been circulated, instantly turning her into a pariah at school.
From that point on, After Lucia becomes an endurance test in abject cruelty. José insists that he didn’t send the video, having left his phone in the bathroom that night. But when Alejandra continues to associate with him, the girls in the group become incensed. The taunting escalates from texts and notes passed in class to outright abuse, humiliation and violence, both physical and sexual.
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Reluctant to burden her already broken father, Alejandra says nothing, internalizing the trauma and shame of what she’s experiencing. When she finally seems ready to tell him rather than run away, the first signs that he may be emerging from his sadness and re-engaging with the world cause her to clam up. During a compulsory school excursion to Veracruz, the hostility toward Alejandra reaches epic proportions, which she absorbs in an almost catatonic state.
A drastic incident during the trip paves the way for the stunning retribution of the final act. But the entire section of the film that leads up to it pushes plausibility. Even allowing for the Lord of the Flies mentality of the scenario and the infinite capacity for teenage insensitivity, the inhuman treatment of Alejandra borders on torture. It seems inconceivable, given the number of kids involved, that not one of them ever questions the ethics of the group’s behavior, even as it grows more and more extreme. While José makes one or two efforts to reach out to her, his silence or absence throughout Ale’s constant degradation seems too convenient. And given that this is an upscale school that goes so far as to impose regular drug tests on its students, nagging questions arise about the lax supervision during the trip, particularly given the amount of noise generated by the kids’ partying.
But credibility issues aside, the film has undeniable impact because the intensity and sobriety of Franco’s focus make the story’s ugliness inescapable. The director has committed accomplices in Ia and Mendoza. Both actors deliver entirely natural, unshowy performances as two wounded people, still navigating devastating loss while the world throws fresh horrors at them.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Pop Films, Lemon Films, Filmadora Nacional, Stromboli Films
Cast: Tessa Ia, Hernan Mendoza, Gonzalo Vega Sisto, Tamara Yazbek Bernal, Francisco Rueda, Paloma Cervantes, Juan Carlos Berruecos, Diego Canales
Director-screenwriter: Michel Franco
Producers: Michel Franco, Marco Polo Constandse, Elias Menasse, Fernando Rovzar
Executive producers: Moises Zonana, Billy Rovzar
Director of photography: Chuy Chavez
Costume designer: Evelyn Robles
Editors: Michel Franco, Antonio Bribiesca
Sales: Bac Films
No rating, 99 minutes
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