'A Thief's Daughter' ('La hija de un ladron'): Film Review | San Sebastian 2019

San Sebastian Film Festival
Steals your heart.

Catalan writer-director Belen Funes' debut feature premiered in the main competition at the Spanish fest, with star Greta Fernandez sharing best actress honors.

A quietly star-making performance from Greta Fernandez firmly anchors A Thief's Daughter (La hija de un ladrón), the rock-solid debut feature from emerging Catalan director/co-writer Belen Funes. One of the consensus standouts from this year's Golden Shell competition at San Sebastian — where 24-year-old Fernandez shared best actress honors with a comparative veteran, Nina Hoss — this accessibly hard-knock immersion into the life of a feisty single mother heads to Chicago as the next berth on what will be a busy festival tour. Set for domestic release in Spain at the end of November, the film is a naturalistic and empathetic evocation of life at the lower end of the social ladder, one which wears its near-inevitable Loach/Dardenne aspects with appealing freshness.

The picture marks the latest in an occasional series of onscreen collaborations between Fernandez and her father Eduard, which stretch all the way back to her debut in Cesc Gay's Fiction (2006) when she was 11. By this point, Fernandez Sr. was already well-established among his country's most acclaimed thespians: He won the Goya — Spain's Academy Award equivalent — for best actor in 2002 and now has 11 nominations to his credit. That tally may well hit a dozen when the next shortlists are announced in December, and his daughter will almost certainly be in the running for her three-dimensional turn as the hard-working 22-year-old Sara.

As efficiently conveyed by experienced editor Bernat Aragones' cutting, Sara's life is a breakneck juggle of hassles and responsibilities, her timetable dictated by the needs of her 6-month-old baby. With her partner Dani (Alex Monner) largely working away, Sara relies on temporary social housing options and the services child-minders to look after her kid: She trundles around Barcelona on public transport between her various low-level, low-paid jobs, mainly in the food industry. Flexible and adaptable, Sara is an organized, motivated young woman who certainly doesn't let hearing impairment (she wears an aid in one ear) get in her way.

Sara has, we deduce, developed her street-smarts by having to grow up pretty fast. She's certainly had little help from her own parents, with the "thief" of the title (the nature of this larceny is left enigmatically unspecified) middle-aged Manuel (Eduard Fernandez). He has long had hardly any contact with Sara or his other child, her 7-year-old half-brother Martin (Tomas Martin), who as the film begins is living in a state orphanage. Sara explores legal avenues to obtain custody of her sibling, responding angrily when her suitability for this responsibility is questioned. "You have nothing!" she is taunted. "I have everything" is her calm reply — a lovely moment.

Manuel's sudden return to Barcelona causes major upheavals in everyone's life, but potentially paves the way for reconciliation — if some daunting interpersonal obstacles can be overcome. While maintaining a steely reluctance to allow hard-drinking Manuel back into her life, Sara is ruefully philosophical in her acceptance that some bonds can't be easily broken or forgotten: "I carry him in my face," as she puts it with eloquent economy (a line that only really works given the real-life connection between the performers). And what a face it is: pretty but unadorned, guarded but expressive, capable of breaking into a disarmingly goofy grin when life gives her a fleeting burst of joy.

Funes learned the ropes via a couple of well-received shorts made under the auspices of Isabel Coixet's production company: A Thief's Daughter is in fact a feature-length sequel to Sara a la fuga (2015),  both co-written with Marcal Cebrian. The short introduced Fernandez Sr. as Sara's father, opposite Dania Mourad in the title role. Several of the key creative personnel on both projects have also worked with Coixet, one of the most internationally prominent Catalan filmmakers since her 2003 breakthrough, the Canadian co-production My Life Without Me.

Since then Coixet's critical reputation has wavered most erratically: Her most recent outing, the lesbian love story Elisa & Marcela, starring Greta Fernandez, played to generally frosty reviews when premiering in competition at this year's Berlinale. Funes, by contrast, is near the start of what promises to be a bright career. A Thief's Daughter breaks no new creative or thematic ground, but within its limitations works just fine as a finely etched character study that casts welcome light on tough social realities prevailing across modern-day Europe and far beyond.

Production companies: BTeam, Oberon Cinematografica
Cast: Greta Fernandez, Eduard Fernandez, Alex Monner, Tomas Martin, Frank Feys, Maria Rodriguez Soto
Director: Belen Funes
Screenwriters: Marcal Cebrian, Belen Funes
Producers: Antonio Chavarrias, Alex Lafuente
Cinematographer: Neus Olle
Production designer: Marta Bazaco
Costume designer: Desiree Guirao
Editor: Bernat Aragones
Casting director: Irene Roque
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Latido Films, Madrid

In Spanish (with some Catalan)
102 minutes