Underage (De Menor): Rio de Janeiro Review

A refreshing if flawed drama that skirts around the social issues it raises rather than tackling them head on, this is nevertheless a strong calling card for debut director Caru Alves De Souza.

This low-key drama about a young lawyer for whom the personal and the professional suddenly collide shared the best film award at Rio.

A slight moral fable shot through with an appealing simplicity which nevertheless leaves it feeling underachieved, Underage unpicks the troubled relationship between a young lawyer and her wild child younger brother with care and intelligence. Though it’s wisely aware of its own limitations, the film feels somewhat repetitive, delivering few narrative surprises and lacking impact.

But its freshness, seriousness of purpose, and admirable lack of histrionics, all of which echo its protagonist’s quietly determined attempts to do the right thing, still see it through. This debut drama shared the best film award with A Wolf at the Door at the recent Rio festival and suggests that there is much more to come from director Caru Alves De Souza.

Recently-graduated attorney Helena (Rita Batata, carrying the weight of the entire thing), presumably orphaned, looks after her younger brother Caio (Giovanni Gallo), with whom she is sharing an inheritance. Her job is to defend minors who come before the law in the form of judge Carlos (Caco Ciocler); Helena takes her job seriously, journeying out to the favelas so as to be able to reunite Matheus (Diego Pablito) with his mother (Gilda Nomacce) to prevent the young boy from being imprisoned. The scenes involving characters from a less privileged background supply the wider context the film needs to generate its meanings.

But all is not well. For reasons that are unexplained by the script -- though it may of course be that he lacks a father figure -- Caio gets mixed up with a bad crew and is arrested, firstly for having a weapon, and later for using it. Helena finds that the personal and the professional are suddenly dangerously mixed, which creates a dilemma for her: she can defend the kids who have strayed into crime for social reasons with a clear conscience, but can she justifiably really defend the middle-class, relatively wealthy Caio, who happens to be her brother?

This is an interesting moral conflict which the film fails to exploit dramatically. Likewise, its exploration of social issues is gentle and roundabout to the point of being frustrating. Questions about the age at which juveniles should be incarcerated, and about how the justice system treats kids from different social classes differently, are raised but never really confronted or explored, as though afraid to make its point too clearly. There is the feeling that the film has fallen short of its ambitions – but at the same time Alves De Souza does feel like a safe pair of hands, and there is the sense that, if she’d given herself more time to make her points, that she would have done so convincingly.

Rather than engaging with its subjects, the script devotes much time to watching Helena visit her beloved beach to escape from the pressures of it all, or reflecting in unhappy silence about what it all means. At the same time, though, expectations are neatly overturned in that, although it might be expected that Helena’s being a woman would cause her problems in the workplace, at no point is she a victim of machismo. Equally refreshingly, the film is not an attack on Brazil’s justice system per se: all the system’s representatives seem to be decent young people seeking what they believe to be justice.

Although her character cannot really withstand having so many weighty themes channeled through her, Batata does a terrific job, displaying the mix of firmness and fragility which the role demands. But Caio is just a spoilt brat, and there’s not a lot that Gallo can do to change that. Helena cares about him more than the viewer ever can, with negative consequences for viewer engagement. Both Jacob Solitrenick’s camerawork and Tata Aeroplano's quiet score are understated and effective, in keeping with the film’s generally low-key air.

Production: Tangerina Entretenimento
Cast: Rita Batata, Giovanni Gallo, Caco Ciocler, Rui Ricardo Diaz, Diego Pablito
Director: Caru Alves De Souza
Screenwriter: Alves De Souza, Fabio Meira
Producers: Tata Amaral, Alves De Souza
Director of photography: Jacob Solitrenick
Production designer: Leticia Bernaus
Music: Tata Aeroplano
Editor: Willem Dias
Sound: Rodrigo Sanchez Marino
Sales: Tangerina Entretenimento
No rating, 77 minutos