'Days of the Whale': Film Review

Days of the Whale Still 1 - Outsider Pictures Publicity- H 2020
Courtesy of Outsider Pictures
Vibrant and affecting.
7/24/2020

Colombian director Catalina Arroyave's feature debut revolves around two teenage artists who run afoul of a youth gang in Medellín.

Colombian writer-director Catalina Arroyave makes an auspicious feature debut with an affecting coming-of-age drama that is all the more powerful for its stylistic restraint and lack of melodramatics. Depicting the burgeoning relationship between two teenage street artists from different sides of the Medellín tracks, Days of the Whale delivers a vibrantly alive portrayal of a city too easily associated with violence and drug cartels. The film has already made a strong impression at several film festivals — including a special jury mention in the CherryPicks Female First Feature Award category at last year's SXSW — and is now receiving a U.S. virtual cinema release in 26 theaters.

The central characters are Cristina (Laura Tobón, making an impressive film debut) and Simon (David Escallón, ditto), graffiti artists who belong to La Selva, a collective that provides a refuge for young artists looking to engender social change. They come from different social backgrounds but are close friends whose relationship soon turns intimate.

University student Cristina, sporting multiple tattoos and pink highlights in her hair, lives with her financially comfortable father (Christian Tappan) and his younger wife (Valeria Castaño Fajardo). But she's much closer to her journalist mother (Margarita Celene Restrepo), who has decamped to Spain after being threatened by criminal groups she had been investigating. Simon lives with his working-class grandmother, who tolerates his frequent absences and always provides a home-cooked meal when he does show up.

The most dramatic element of the narratively slight film concerns a gang of local youths who extort protection money from small businesses, including the artists collective to which Cristina and Simon belong. Although the group's leader, Lucas (Carlos Fonnegra), wants to avoid trouble, Simon is mostly unconcerned, having gone to school with several gang members. But when he approaches a former friend and asks him to go easy, the gang's response is to paint the ominous message "Snitches Get Stitches" in large letters on a wall in plain view of the collective. The resulting tension drives a rift between the young lovers, as the risk-taking Simon wants to defy the gang's threat and erase the wall while the more cautious Cristina wants to back down.

Underscoring the conflict is the striking metaphor that gives the film its title, a whale that has somehow found its way into one of the city's narrow canals. The creature is introduced in a majestic shot in which its massive tail silently and miraculously appears out of the water, and it later reappears under more tragic circumstances. The animal ultimately provides the inspiration for the large and beautiful psychedelic-style artwork that figures prominently in the film's uplifting conclusion.

The filmmaker imposes few stylistic diversions on the affecting proceedings; she adopts a naturalistic style abetted by dynamic handheld cinematography and a propulsive music score featuring salsa, reggaeton and hip-hop.

The performances by the largely nonprofessional ensemble are similarly unaffected, with the two young leads compelling as the troubled but sympathetic protagonists. Supporting characters are well drawn, avoiding the usual stereotypes; while Cristina is clearly at odds with her father, for instance, he emerges as a compassionate figure struggling to get through to his disaffected daughter. And her mother, although seen only in brief video chats, nonetheless makes a striking impression, fully convincing us of the strong bond between them. 

Bursting with the vibrancy of youth, both behind and in front of the camera, Days of the Whale feels comfortably familiar in its themes but daringly bold in its milieu.

Production companies: Amplitude, Madlove, RARA Colectivo Audiovisual
Distributor: Outsider Pictures (in virtual movie theaters)
Cast: Laura Tobón, David Escallón, Carlos Fonnegra, Christian Tappan, Julian Giraldo, Valeria Castaño Fajardo, Margarita Celene Restrepo
Director-screenwriter: Catalina Arroyave
Producers: Jaime Guerrero Naudin, Natalia Agudelo, Nicolas Herreno
Executive producers: Jaime Guerrero Naudin, Catalina Arroyave, David Correa Franco, Andres Arias, Mariana Gil, Camilo Escobar, Juan Pablo Castrillon
Director of photography: David Correa Franco
Production designer: Tatiana Vera
Music: Victor Acevedo
Editor: Juan Sebastian Quebrada

In Spanish
80 minutes