'The Sharks' ('Los Tiburones'): Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Federico Morosini and Romina Bentancur in 'The Sharks'
Packs a quiet bite.

Debuting Uruguayan writer-director Lucia Garibaldi mixes inchoate desire with malice in her narratively spare coming-of-age drama set in a sleepy beach town.

The female gaze burns in The Sharks, a simmering hormonal cauldron of early-adolescent emotional isolation in which a 14-year-old teen's efforts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of sexual attraction trigger dark impulses within her. In her modest but tonally assured first feature, Lucia Garibaldi strips conventional plotting down to the bone, a process mirrored by her skilled use of the wide-open physical spaces exposing her young protagonist's intensely private world. The controlled austerity of the approach recalls the work of Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco, making this a solid festival calling card for the promising Uruguayan writer-director.

Garibaldi has found an ideal conduit for her coolly cryptic psychological probe in unselfconscious nonprofessional actress Romina Bentancur, who plays Rosina. We learn that she's capable of violence almost from the opening scene as she runs along the road, through the bushes and down on to the beach, pursued by her concerned father (Fabian Arenillas), and even more closely, by German Nocella Sedes' camera. It emerges that she has injured the eye of her older sister Mariana (Antonella Aquistapache), and although she says it was an accident, she shows no remorse. Wading into the ocean, Rosina seems aware of a presence, even before she gets out of the water and glimpses a dorsal fin breaking the surface.

While Rosina is convinced she saw a shark, her father is dismissive, claiming the ocean predators are not common in those parts. But when a bloodied sea lion carcass is washed up on the sand, the local fishermen whose catch has been depleted start agitating to hunt down the shark.

Despite being a middle child, Rosina is largely alone, displaying little warmth toward her sister and the latter's sex-obsessed friends, pretty much ignoring her younger brother and communicating minimally with her scatty, self-absorbed mother (Valeria Lois), who is completely caught up in gathering materials and studying techniques to start a home beautician sideline. Rosina's barely concealed eye roll as she tries to explain basic online skills to her is one example of the movie's deadpan minor-key humor.

When she's drafted by her father to help out the crew of his yard maintenance business over the summer, Rosina is instantly drawn to Joselo (Federico Morosini), a co-worker a couple years older than her, who is supplementing his fishing income. He returns her attentions in a blunt, though seemingly indifferent way, inviting her to come by the garage where he hangs out. But that clumsy encounter proves unsatisfying. The camera stays on Rosina's inscrutable face as Joselo concentrates on his own pleasure, breathlessly repeating the instruction: "Touch yourself." His interest in her quickly cools after that, drifting to his buddies, soccer and perhaps older girlfriends. But Rosina refuses to be dismissed.

Taking her cue from the title creatures that may or may not be cruising the coastal waters, Garibaldi shapes guarded, impassive Rosina into her own kind of predatory stalker. She angles to get under affectless Joselo's skin by crude means at first — with anonymous, heavy-breathing phone calls — and then using more aggressive strategies involving his dog and his boat. The possibility of her causing him real harm is left hanging in the open-ended final scene.

Far from being a vengeful bunny-boiler in a Fatal Attraction–by-way-of-Jaws scenario, Rosina is a young woman trying to feel her way toward the threshold of adulthood, guided only by her fumbling, conflicted instincts.

Relying chiefly on the unblinking alertness of Rosina's gaze in Bentancur's fully internalized performance, and the void created around her in sparsely populated widescreen frames often drenched in hot natural light, Garibaldi crafts a subtle contemplation of youthful female desire and subversive empowerment. Not a lot actually happens, but you're drawn in all the same, with periodic blasts of loud, borderline-menacing techno music suggesting the potential for both emotional and physical violence.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Romina Bentancur, Federico Morosini, Fabian Arenillas, Antonella Aquistapache, Valeria Lois, Bruno Pereyra, Jorge Portillo

Production companies: Montelona Cine, Trapecio Cine, Nephilim Producciones
Director-screenwriter: Lucia Garibaldi
Producers: Isabel Garcia, Pancho Magnou Arnabal
Executive producer: Pancho Magnou Arnabal
Director of photography: German Nocella Sedes
Production designers: Nicole Davrieux, Maria Victoria Figueredo
Costume designer: Gabriela de Armas
Music: Fabrizio Rossi, Miguel Recalde
Editor: Sebastian Schjaer
Casting: Chiara Hourcade
Sales: Visit Films

80 minutes