'The Good Girls' ('Las ninas bien'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

More like 'The Superficial Girls.'

Director Alejandra Marquez Abela ('Semana Santa') returns to TIFF with her sophomore feature, which stars Ilse Salas as a rich wife confronted with the fallout of the 1982 debt crisis in Mexico.

The women in the plushly accoutered Mexican drama The Good Girls (Las ninas bien) are living in golden cages, though they are so close to the bars that from the inside, it might look like freedom. As the wives of upper-class men in 1982 Mexico, the lives of the titular protagonists consist of constant gossiping, buying expensive gowns and creams, and having yet another lunch at the racquet club (while the maids, gardeners and chauffeurs look after theirs husbands, homes and kids). But with the Mexican economy in for some nasty shocks, these frail little birds might be in for a rude awakening. 

After her well-received debut, Semana Santa from 2015, Mexican director Alejandra Marquez Abela returns to TIFF with this sophomore feature, which was inspired by Guadalupe Loaeza's satirical writings on some of the country's richest, yet in many ways, least powerful citizens. But The Good Girls is more like an intentionally overdressed drama than a satirical comedy, while the clearly foretold ending robs the proceedings of any suspense. This paints the otherwise gorgeously mounted and beautifully played feature into a corner early on, making this more of a festival item than an interesting commercial proposition.

In the Las Lomas neighborhood, life is picture perfect — or, at least, that's what these Real Housewives of Mexico City are striving for. Their glamorous dinners need that sublime recipe for cannelloni and their children's birthday party something unusual and spectacular, like pony rides in the garden. In this world lives Sofia (Ilse Salas), whose biggest dream, expressed in an erratic voiceover that doesn't add all that much, is to have Julio Iglesias sing at one of her shindigs. 

In the opening moments, the director and her cinematographer, Dariela Ludlow, bathe all of Sofia's preparations for a swanky soiree at her home for her birthday in a milky light that suggests a commercial or photo shoot from the early 1980s. An unlimited supply of shoulder pads, blue eyeshadow and crazy hair do the rest. Then and later — like when the camera endlessly swirls around these trophy wives during their regular tennis club lunches, showcasing their perfectly manicured and bejeweled hands holding their glasses of champagne — it is clear that appearance doesn't just count for a lot; it's actually everything.

The problem for Marquez Abela, who wrote the adaptation herself, is that only depicting the glamorous but skin-deep surface isn't quite enough for a feature-length film. Especially when the satirical edge of the original material has been dulled, audiences are forced to take all these ostentatious displays of wealth, unaccompanied by any kind of inner world, as seriously as the protagonists do. This makes it is hard to care for the protagonist, who seems uninterested in her husband, Fernando (Flavio Medina), except as a source of status and money and seems to care even less about their three kids. Instead, Sofia is happy to pack off her little ones to summer camp as soon as she can with a snappy and condescending "Don't hang out with the Mexicans!" when they leave. 

When the 1982 debt crisis hits the country and cracks slowly start to appear in Sofia's perfect world, with a declined credit card here and the first complaints from unpaid people on the family's domestic staff there, it is impossible for a viewer not to desire Sofia's comeuppance. Even the meteoric rise of the nouveau riche but also quite well-meaning Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan) feels like something Sofia deserves. There is something ironic about the fact that  Sofia doesn't even necessarily care about being eclipsed by the new girl on the scene, but that she cares that she could be eclipsed by someone who is tackier and less experienced than her (but whose husband's source of income, of course, turns out to be more secure than her own). But this kind of irony is inferred more than shown and not much present elsewhere.

Salas, who first came to prominence in Alonso Ruizpalacios' Gueros, plays Sofia like an always composed and sophisticated ice queen who merely deigns to enjoy what she so clearly deserves. Abela doesn't give her quite enough notes to play, so it isn't that easy to get a sense of the human being underneath all that perfectly coifed hair, those perfectly manicured nails and those always immaculate designer outfits and sunglasses. "We all want to live like princesses," Ana Paulina tells her at one point, and apparently being a princess translates, in Sofia's eyes, to being an adult brat who only cares about how she is being perceived by the other women around her. In short, Sofia is a tiring character to be around, so her downfall can't come soon enough. Perhaps this is why it also feels like the movie has several endings.

There is a scene, very late in the proceedings, where Fernando and Sofia hurl insults at each other as they both confess why they married the other. It's only here that the movie really comes alive. The Good Girls needed more of these kinds of soul-baring revelations, and it needed them earlier. It is the disillusionment, hurt and heartbreak they are hiding behind their perfect exteriors that humanizes them and makes them relatable even to audiences with not a peso in the bank. 

In terms of the visuals, the period look is predictably glamorous. The only technical contribution that really does surprise is Tomas Barreiro's score, which incorporates what sounds like hands clapping as a form of percussion, as if invisible onlookers at the sidelines were trying to wake up Sofia from her sumptuous life of self-induced stupor. 

Production company: Woo Films
Cast: Ilse Salas, Cassandra Ciangherotti, Paulina Gaitan, Johanna Murillo, Flavio Medina
Writer-Director: Alejandra Marquez Abela, screenplay based on the book by Guadalupe Loaeza
Producers: Rodrigo S. Gonzalez Ortiz, Gabriela Maire
Director of photography: Dariela Ludlow
Production designer: Claudio Ramirez Castelli
Costume designer: Annai Ramos
Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger
Music: Tomas Barreiro
Sales: Luxbox
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)

In Spanish
No rating, 93 minutes