The Well (Manto acuifero): Morelia Review

This drama about a child's unease with her new situation and home leaves too much unsaid.

The second feature from Australian-born, Mexico-based director Michael Rowe ("Leap Year") stars Zaili Sofia Macias Galvan, Tania Arredondo and Arnoldo Picazzo.

A little Mexican niña wants to hide from the unfamiliar surroundings of the new home she’s moved into with mom and that pesky new boyfriend of hers in The Well (Manta acuifera), from Australian-born, Mexico-based filmmaker Michael Rowe.

This is only the second feature of the director who won the prestigious Cannes Camera d’Or for his first feature, Leap Year, in 2010. And like that sexually charged chamber piece, this film again keeps locations to a minimum -- just the family’s home and its overgrown backyard that houses the titular well -- though that film’s tightly coiled and slowly unfurled psychology of the female protagonist is replaced here with too little insight into the blank-slate, tight-lipped protagonist.

However, Rowe’s status as a Cannes-anointed award winner and the involvement of production company Canana (whose producers include popular Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) should help drum up further festival interest after the film’s recent debut at the Morelia Film Festival and subsequent international premiere at the Rome fest, where it’ll play in competition.

Carolina (Zaili Sofia Macias Galvan), or Caro for short, has recently moved to Cholula from Mexico City with her mother (Tania Arredondo) and new step dad, Felipe (Arnoldo Picazzo), who’s moved his ailing mother out of her house so he could move in with his new family. Caro clearly misses Mexico City but most of all she misses her father and doesn’t understand why she’s had to leave and has to put up with someone who claims to “be her dad now.”

Instead of playing in her brand new room (think pink everywhere) with the dolls Felipe has given her, Caro prefers the enormous, darkly foreboding backyard, where some chickens sit in a coop and wild plants and dead leaves seem to cover up secret hiding places everywhere. The titular well has her special attention and after Felipe’s told her that the hairy monster that lives there will lock her up if she ever comes close again, she practically moves in (she does, in a nicely observed scene of child psychology at work, check with her mother first if it's indeed true that monster do not really exist). 

But that’s about all in terms of narrative or character. Caro’s father remains an off-screen entity throughout and the little girl’s hardly an open book herself. It's also unclear how much of the adult conversations she overhears she can understand, with the stakes feeling perpetually low and most scenes offering little in terms of insight, though acting is generally fine in an unfrilly sort of way. Caro’s mother is also more sketched in than a fully formed character, further making it hard for audiences to access a story that essentially happens in Caro’s head but to which no one else (not even the audience) is privy, at least until the supposedly shocking finale which barely registers since audiences will have no empathy for the character and her situation; it's less a shocking insight than the general realization something's gravely wrong. 

The atmosphere’s slightly foreboding throughout, with solid work from production designer Eugenio Caballero on especially the garden and the absence of music helping to underline the silences. And the short, staccato scenes of editors Ares Botanch and Oscar Figueroa Lara at least ensure that there’s some forward momentum as well, though in hindsight the film seems to have unspooled as a procession of scenes in which little happens, followed by a single payoff sequence that feels less like a shock than a gimmick that might’ve worked in the context of the original short story by Australian author Tim Winton but feels like too little, too late for a feature film, even one that clocks in at under 80 minutes.

Venue: Morelia Film Festival (Competition)

Production company: Canana

Cast: Zaili Sofia Macias Galvan, Tania Arredondo, Arnoldo Picazzo

Writer-Director: Michael Rowe, screenplay based on the short story Secretsby Tim Winton

Producers: Gael Garcia Bernal, Julian Levin, Arturo Sampson

Executive producer: Diego Luna

Director of photography: Diego Garcia

Production designer: Eugenio Caballero

Costume designer: Anna Terrazza

Editors: Ares Botanch, Oscar Figueroa Lara

Sales: Mundial

No rating, 78 minutes.