The third feature from Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor (Thursday Till Sunday, Mar) was inspired by her own childhood and looks at the summer of 1990, right after the fall of Pinochet at the end of 1989. Though her latest, Too Old to Die Young (Tarde para morir joven), isn’t an overtly political work, focusing as it does on a 16-year-old in a bucolic, commune-like setting, the epoch’s cautious, somewhat uncertain optimism does find its parallels in the travails of a young girl who, like her country, is slowly trying to come into her own.
Though more an atmospheric and sensorial experience than strictly a narrative one, this languorous and handsomely produced (by Call Me by Your Name producer Rodrigo Teixeira) feature is a lovingly textured addition to the coming-of-age genre. It earned Sotomayor best director honors at the Locarno International Film Festival, making her the first woman to do so in the fest’s 71-year history. It is also part of the main slate of this year’s New York Film Festival.
Sofia (newcomer Demian Hernandez), a 16-year-old girl, has recently moved to an improvised new village in the foothills of the Andes, where the adults hope to improve on life in the big city and under the dictatorship. The homes are still under construction and only have transparent plastic instead of proper walls; water pipes cause problems and there is a discussion about whether and how electricity should be brought to the community. But there is also a sense of liberty and carefree living that especially the children seem to fully take advantage of. Since Sotomayor is frequently in full-on observational mode, some of the film’s strongest moments are seemingly “stolen” ones, like a prolonged shot of a little kid in clothes just a little too big, dancing during a party like he’s all alone in the room.
Young kids seem to enjoy their almost unlimited freedom to play around on the dance floor, outside in the water or in the nearby fields and forests, but adolescents like Sofia have a slightly harder time. On top of her growing pains, she knows what potentially lies ahead should she ever get into a relationship, since her father (Andres Aliaga), a luthier with a scraggly beard whom she accuses of egotism, took her to the commune, but he lives separated from Sofia’s mother, a musician with whom the teenager hopes to move in. His laconic response: “Have you asked her if she wants you there?” Clearly, her parents aren’t the greatest example of how to conduct an adult relationship.
That said, boys are still a fascinating species and there is an older guy, Ignacio (Matias Oviedo), that Sofia becomes interested in, much to the chagrin of Lucas (Antar Machado), who is just as old as Sofia and is clearly pining for her. While she thinks nothing of jumping into a car and speeding off, even though she’s not old enough yet to have a driver’s license, Lucas can’t muster much more than to awkwardly ride shotgun beside her, probably making him look even less cool in her eyes. That said, from there to actually conquering Ignacio is quite a different story for Sofia.
Hernandez, who is about four years older in real life, delivers a knockout performance as Sofia; she’s naturalistic, restrained and taciturn without losing any of the character’s expressiveness. Two of her most telling scenes are entirely without dialogue and almost mirror each other. In the first, about midway through, Sofia takes a bath in a tub, while the smoke of her cigarette intermingles with the steam coming off the hot water. Beyond being one of cinematographer Inti Briones’ (The Blind Christ) most mesmerizing images, it implies a studiedness to the way Sofia carries herself, even when alone, which suggests she’s trying to act out the role of an adult (she has already declared that her parents “need to get used” to the fact that she smokes, suggesting that she sees lighting up as a marker of adulthood). The second time she is bathing, it is in a mountain stream while a wildfire roars in a nearby forest. Surrounded by nature, it has become clear that Sofia has naturally turned into the adult she so painstakingly tried to be earlier on.
Taken together, the two similar yet in many ways tellingly different images create meaning. Sotomayor and editor Catalina Marin splice in another two breathtaking images at different points in the film that seem to mirror each other, this time long tracking shots that follow a running Frida, the dog of 10-year-old Clara (Magdalena Totoro). While she initially gets lost and seems to end up in the city again, the animal later wisely escapes from the forest fire. Is Frida a symbol for Chile, for Sofia or just a dog? Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that for Sofia, Frida and the country, there was a time before and after the summer of 1990, and that that idea is elegantly expressed through the use of these images-with-variations that capture the protagonists at different turning points in their lives.
More generally, it can be said that Briones’ beautifully composed and finely grained cinematography is the standout craft contribution, with its relatively boxy aspect ratio and desaturated color scheme gently suggesting the past even as the production and costume design try to counterbalance this tendency through the use of not-too-time-specific items and materials. These choices help Sotomayor create a dreamy sense of almost present-tense memories — also reflected in the film’s title — that helps to reinforce the notion this particular story has relevance now as well, and any historical-political happenings are finally just background noise to the hard work that is growing up and finding yourself.
While the children and teens are all unknowns, there is at least one recognizable face for Chileans and hawk-eyed international art house patrons, as Antonia Zegers, Pablo Larrain’s actress wife and frequent star, plays one of the commune’s mothers.
Production companies: Cinestacion, RT Features, Ruda Cine, Circe Films, Primate Lab
Cast: Demian Hernandez, Antar Machado, Magdalena Totoro, Matias Oviedo, Andres Aliaga, Antonia Zegers, Alejandro Goic, Mercedes Mujica, Eyal Meyer, Gabriel Canas, Michael Silva
Writer-director: Dominga Sotomayor
Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Dominga Sotomayor
Executive producers: Omar Zuniga, Sophie Mas, Daniel Pech
Director of photography: Inti Briones
Production designer: Estefania Larrain
Costume designers: Felipe Criado, Estefania Larrain
Editor: Catalina Marin
Casting: Francisca Castillo
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Stray Dogs