‘About 12’ (‘Juana a las 12’): Film Review

About 12 - H 2016
Courtesy of Nabis
A deceptively gentle little-girl-lost drama.

Argentinian Martin Shanly’s debut records the clumsy attempts of its 12 year-old heroine to find her place in a world of indifference.

A delicate, precise study of pre-teen bewilderment in the face of an uncomprehending world, About 12 is also more than that. Somebody is definitely to blame for the titular heroine’s absolute isolation in the world she’s been born into, but About 12 isn’t saying who, and the effect of its scrupulous even-handedness is that it ends up obliging the viewer to ask difficult questions about their own role in all this. As such, the film, a recent Argentinian release, is one of of those quietly engrossing, rewarding, minor-key items, one which would be fully deserving of finding festival friends.

Introverted Juana (Rosario Shanly, the director’s younger sister), with learning difficulties that aren’t being recognized as such and a rebellious spirit, is from a well-to-do background, attending a private, traditionally rigid, British school and being raised by her mother Patricia (María Passo): her father Gustavo (Marcelo Shanly -- the director exploits his family heavily when casting) is absent. (Always away on business trips, he appears only briefly, in a dream sequence.

The fact that Juana’s family is clearly wealthy put some off: it would have been a lot simpler, in terms of the easy hook, to add a deprived inner-city upbringing to her other woes. But that’s exactly About 12’s point: that even those who are supposedly throwing money and delivering the best for the next generation of kids are also making a mess of it by alienating them. In this world, About 12 tells us in one potent classroom scene, a socially successful schoolgirl crying over a torn-up letter is more important than a socially unsuccessful one crying over a torn-up life.

There are three settings to Juana’s small world -- school, friends, and mother -- and things are going badly in all of them. She struggles with the classes given by her math teacher (Maria Ines Sancerni), and is terrified (as is the viewer) by her strict religious knowledge teacher, Miss Amy (Amy Schulte). She struggles to make friends with Luana (Camila Bonta), a Brazilian girl who Juana senses is an outsider like herself, but who is in fact popular with the other girls: much of what little plot there is hangs on whether or not Juana will be invited to a particular party.

And with Patricia there is practically no real communication either, as her mother farms out the responsibility for Juana to teachers, shrinks and doctors: the girl is a problem to be solved. All of this is scrupulously recorded by Roman Kasseroller in a way that absolutely shuns sensationalism -- this is not one of those facile scripts where the kids end up teaching the adults life lessons. Our heart indeed bleeds for Juana, but she can be very annoying too, and Rosario Shanly’s performance keeps both sides of her simultaneously alive as she moves from serious-faced rebel to giggly pre-teen and back,

The various relationships are dealt with by Shanly in a wonderfully understated and credible way, the characters’ interactions played out in ways which are often toe-curlingly awkward to watch but rich in subtext. Watching Juana trying to utter her single line in the school play makes you want to put both her and her teacher out of their respective miseries, whilst we also realize that she’s really having difficulties delivering the lines which life has given to her. A brief but significant dialogue in which Juana states her belief that her mother’s painted porcelain is ‘too pretty’ speaks volumes about how the girl just doesn’t fit the 12 year-old girl mould. And, of course, when she gets to go to the fancy dress party, it’s dressed as a monster with vampire teeth.

If there’s any complaint to be made about About 12, it’s that it ticks a little too neatly the psychological boxes: it’s not hard to imagine it being used as a training video for trainee shrinks who would then be examined on how they’d deal with Juana. (They’d do better, hopefully, than the onscreen ones.) But at the end of the day, there are textbook cases out there, and Juana is one -- and it’s not the academics, nor the social crit, but Juana’s quiet dramas, as they play out in her small, privileged world, which prevail.

About 12 is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, bringing it pretty close to the daring perfect square used on Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, with much of the consequent sense of a hemmed-in, imaginatively limited life: the film’s mood feels much like an extension of Juana’s introverted nature. And like Mommy, the film suddenly breaks free of its frame: for a brief, elegantly-composed and surreal, dark and meaningful three-minute sequence later on, when we see her father Gustavo for the first time, in a non-favorable light.

The film contains several scenes featuring English language dialogue.

Production companies: Nabis Filmgroup, 2MCine, Catnap
Cast: Rosario Shanly, Maria Passo, María Ines Sancerni, Javier Burin Heras
Director, screenwriter: Martin Shanly
Producers: Martin Shanly, Lukas Valenta Rinner
Executive producer: Alexan Sarikamichian
Director of photography: Roman Kasseroller
Production designers: Mara Tacon, Victoria Marotta
Editors: Ana Godoy, Javier Favot
Composer: Juan Sorrentino
Casting director:
Sales: Nabis Filmgroup

No rating, 80 minutes