'You'll Never Be Alone' ('Nunca vas a estar solo'): Film Review

Courtesy of Matías Illanes/Araucaria Cine
Affecting but frustrating.

Chilean electropop star Alex Anwandter's directorial debut depicts the days before and after a brutal homophobic hate crime.

At the beginning of the Chilean film You'll Never Be Alone, two teenage boys sprint through the streets of Santiago. When the camera catches up to them, they're in an alley, pressed up against the wall, kissing hungrily. It's a startling sight for viewers accustomed to coyer gay-themed American fare, in which LGBT adolescents, if they exist, spend more time agonizing over identity than getting to first base.

That initial kiss, in its giddy freedom and sensuality, haunts this sometimes affecting, mostly frustrating drama as the story takes a nightmarish turn toward violence — the movie is based on the 2012 murder of gay Chilean Daniel Zamudio — and then sinks into despair. Though You'll Never Be Alone (which premiered recently at the Berlin International Film Festival) presents a bleak picture of a country still warped by homophobia and toxic machismo, the image of the boys' embrace lingers like an unfulfilled promise.   

It also marries the human and the political in a way the rest of the film, for all its sincerity, never manages. Making his feature debut, writer-director Alex Anwandter has opted for a sidelong approach: Only the first third of the 80-minute running time focuses on Pablo (Andrew Bargsted), one of the two boys from the opening; the rest is about his single father, Juan (Sergio Hernandez of Gloria), in the days following a vicious attack that leaves Pablo in a coma. But rather than deepening the film's implications or broadening its scope, the narrative shift results in something that feels strangely indecisive, suspended between a critique of contemporary Chile and a more intimate study of guilt-tainted grief — and not satisfying as either.

Pablo is a dance student who spends his free time hitting the gay clubs with BFF Mari (Astrid Roldan) and rehearsing for an upcoming drag show audition. He coexists peacefully with working-class dad Juan, who logs long hours overseeing production at a mannequin factory in hopes of going into business with his boss. When it comes to Pablo's sexuality, the two seem to operate on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis. What Pablo is not telling, specifically, is that he's sleeping with childhood friend Felix (Jaime Leiva), the other boy glimpsed in the make-out session earlier in the film.

Felix, alas, is a classic closet case, fiercely guarding his sexual preference and striving to boost his macho bona fides with the local thugs who, on a daily basis, threaten and sexually harass Pablo ("Did you take it up the ass?" is a typical taunt). Felix’s desire to fit in with the big bad straight boys is so strong that when he sees them chasing Pablo one day, he ignores his lover’s pleas for help and instead assists the bullies in cornering him and then beating him unconscious. The scene is revolting — it should fill any decent human being with rage — but Anwandter films it tactfully, framing the attackers from the knees up, with Pablo out of sight on the ground; only occasionally does he show the victim's bloodied face, and never in extreme close-up.

At this point, the film turns its attention to the devastated Juan. With his son in a coma, the father tries his best to get on with it, wrangling with the hospital over medical bills and with his lawyer over snags in their case against the attackers, and even confronting a staggeringly unremorseful Felix. Juan emerges as a distinctly sad and solitary figure, realizing the extent to which his son was a stranger to him and coming to grips with the painful fact that his studied indifference to Pablo's sexuality was, perhaps, just a more polite form of disapproval. In one quietly piercing moment, Juan recalls how dejected Pablo looked when Juan pointed out his "limp wrist" and warned that classmates would make fun of him about it. There also are a few eerie and evocative glimpses of Juan working amid a multitude of mannequins, absorbed by these fake humans in a way he never was by the real, breathing, hurting one at home. And there's a lovely scene that finds Juan lurking in the corner of the ballet class Pablo once attended, rapt before a bit of choreography in which three androgynous-looking dancers form a genderless tangle of limbs; the sense of longing for his son is palpable, as is Juan's effort to understand who the boy was — to try to solve that now-unsolvable riddle.

Despite those effective moments, though, the three key characters in You'll Never Be Alone — Pablo, Felix and Juan — remain naggingly opaque, and Anwandter doesn't give them enough time to develop or space to breathe. Bargsted plays Pablo as a typical teen, silly and a bit self-absorbed, with yearnings and anxieties that peek through the mask of nonchalance. But we see so little of his relationship with Felix (aside from a few brief, raw sex scenes) that the latter's betrayal doesn't sting the way it should.

That kind of narrative undernourishment mars the film's second part, too, in which subplots involving Juan's duplicitous boss (Edgardo Bruno), a straight-talking lesbian doctor (Antonia Zegers) and a nosy neighbor (Gabriela Hernandez) feel like distractions from a story that would have been better served by a tighter focus. One starts to suspect that the movie's lopsided structure and pivoting perspective are less a product of the director's distinctive sensibility than a symptom of his uncertainty about how to handle the material.

An electropop star in his home country, Anwandter shoots in a mostly unobtrusive style, using a muted palette and recurring long shots of grey cityscapes to conjure a sprawling, unwelcoming Chilean capital. The writer-director also composed the film's music, which is foreboding at first but grows increasingly mournful as the world portrayed is drained of any hope or joy.

Rare flashes of color come in a handful of scenes set in Pablo's room, where the camera circles this vibrant young man as he swoons and sways to a Latin torch song, decked out in a tight-fitting sequin dress and full makeup. In those moments, the filmmaker and his d.p., Matias Illanes, flood the frame with pink light, suggesting the warmth and empowerment Pablo feels when he's his authentic self — sensations he, tragically, will not know for long.

Production companies: Araucaria Cine, 5AM Producciones
Cast: Sergio Hernandez, Andrew Bargsted, Jaime Leiva, Benjamin Westfall, Gabriela Hernandez, Edgardo Bruna, Antonia Zegers, Camila Hirane, Octavio Navarrete
Writer-director: Alex Anwandter
Producer: Isabel Orellana Guarello
Executive producers: Daniel Dreifuss, Fernanda Montesi, Alex Anwandter
Director of photography: Matias Illanes
Production designer: Andrea Contreras
Costume designer: Natalia Geisse
Editors: Felipe Galvez, Alex Anwandter

Casting: Ivan Parra Reinoso

Not rated, 81 minutes