Summer Hours

in 53rd Cartagena International Film Festival

by Wesley Morris

Of the many strong films in competition at the Cartagena Film Festival, the very strongest was also the most mundane. There are some acutely perceptive filmmakers who can distill the something from the nothing of waking up and loafing around and co-existing, of sitting at dinner tables or in cars and in pools. Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge achieve exactly that with So Much Water (Tanta Aqua), which captures the comedy of disappointment without making a disappointing comedy.

Their film focuses on a vacation 14-year-old Lucia (Malú Chouza) and her little brother Fede (Joaquín Castiglioni) spend with their divorced father, Alberto (Néster Guzzini), at a hot springs in a smallish Uruguayan town. It’s supposed to be a week of pools and nature and fun, but guess what? It rains, pretty much the entire time. And the truth is that the downtime in the flat Alberto’s rented exposes how little he really knows his kids, and how conflicted the kids are about to getting to know him. You can feel the estrangement, which is not a disaster in itself. But each passing day brings the sinking sense that they’re stuck with each other — domestically, biologically, existentially. The vacation was supposed to be some kind of fortifying retreat, but being housebound starts them climbing the walls in very human ways.

While Fede loves the company of his sister and father and can always find a way to amuse himself, Lucia and Alberto need more interactive outlets, and for Lucia a lot of that interactivity is hormonal. She develops a crush on an older-seeming guy. But it’s clear she’s misinterpreting the signals in the usual ways. Suffice it to say that Lucia has a cuter friend. Chouza is a marvel of sweetness and truculence. She underplays adolescent resentment but not so that you can’t see it drawing this character beyond her tenuous family triangle and into a wider, more fraught social world.

It’s striking the way the directors contrast Lucia’s sense of boredom with Fede’s and Alberto. Alberto seems disappointed with himself, but he seems incapable of doing much about it. When Lucia pulls a prank on him, he absorbs it. As affection goes, it’s better than nothing, and he’s remarkably even about. You get the sense that he’s trying to figure out what kind of father to be in the same way that Lucia is trying to figure what kind of woman and daughter she’d like to be.

This is Guevara and Jorge’s first film, and they have the sensitivity and perception you’re desperate for in films about families. Lots of directors have to tried frame teen doldrums, a subset of those filmmakers have explored the way idle hands in adolescence can occasionally lead to the devil’s work — Lucretia Martel’s The Holy Girl being an outstanding, complex example. Guevara and Jorge take a quasi-objective approach — even in its watchfulness, the film feels remembered. It’s hard to make a movie about dreariness that doesn’t itself eel dreary. They’ve put their three leads on the same page — they seem like a family and in watching them, apart and together, becomes a touch like watching a documentary.

Guevara and Jorge aren’t looking to concoct drama where there is none. Life is the drama, but they understand that it isn’t always dramatic. I love the movie’s magical power to convey boredom without boring you. They transform that experience into a private matter, into personal wonder. That’s an incredible gift that you pray Guevara and Jorge get an opportunity to explore again and again.

Edited by Lesley Chow