Oct 2, 2013

NYFF 2013: Club Sandwich

Fernando Eimbcke's third feature is a wry, sharp, sweetly funny coming of age story with a twist. Héctor (Lucio Giménez Cacho Goded) is a chubby, awkward teenager on vacation with his young mom, Paloma (the spectacular María Reneé Prudencio). They are staying in a deserted hotel in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, which seems suspended in time. In fact, time seems suspended in time, since nothing much happens. At the beginning, we are not even sure if they are mother and son or brother and sister, such is their rapport. They apply sunscreen, they lie like lizards by the empty pool, they play rock paper scissors to see who takes a shower first. Paloma has an eyebrow piercing, tattoos and an attitude. Héctor is mutating into adulthood, which means he is a sulking, monosyllabic teenager with secret desires. Their chummy relationship is clearly on the cusp of changing. They bicker over their choice of underwear, and there are times when Paloma can feel his awkwardness shutting her out, as he starts objecting to the status quo.
One day, a family arrives. A chubby teenage girl, an old man in a wheelchair and a nurse who looks like a cross between Nurse Ratched and Chloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein. The girl, Jasmín (Danae Reynaud), sees Héctor by the pool and avoids him at first. But then, as she sees him baking like a lobster under the sun, having clearly disregarded Paloma's sunscreen instructions, Jasmín wakes him up and invites him over to his room to slather Phillips Milk of Magnesia on his back. Love, or something like it, ensues.
By now, Eimbcke has established a sparse, still style. His camera never moves. It observes the characters up close or from afar and stays out of the way to allow us to see how they move, mostly internally. He is so skilled a writer/director that one doesn't miss the moving camera. His framing is never boring. One welcomes the beautiful compositions, the almost theatrical, yet fluid, organic staging. Nothing else calls attention to itself, but the characters and their moods and gestures.
The movie seems suspended in amniotic fluid, but Eimbcke has a mischievous spirit and he shatters the stillness of this family's cocoon with a couple of fantastically disruptive visual gags. And there is nothing superfluous in his writing. A seemingly tangential trip to grab a bag of chips from a vending machine at the beginning of the movie is used for a beautiful turning point towards the end.
Not much action, not much dialogue, and still, tectonic shifts are taking place. Héctor discovers sex, but most importantly, and here's the twist (because how many times have you seen a teenage coming of age story?), it is Paloma's coming of age as well. Hers is the ruder awakening, as she suddenly realizes that the exciting tiny new bristles over Hector's upper lip are the harbingers of his impending independence from her; that from now on, he will divide his love for her with someone else. It's the dawn of a new, scary era and her ambivalent, shocked, confused, and unprepared reaction to it is hilarious and deeply moving.
We learn that "there is no dad" for Hector, which explains his strong bond with Paloma. Jasmin knows every detail of her conception. But Paloma doesn't remember how Hector got made (she slept around). That is, she is as far from the stereotypical long-suffering Mexican mother as anyone has ever been in a Mexican film, a feat for which Eimbcke should be named national hero. Paloma is independent minded, a single mother, fiercely loving but not unduly smothering. She is bracingly unsentimental. She is jealous and suspicious of the angelic-faced yet sinuous Jasmin, and just as she exhibits behaviors unseemly for a mother in their wounded competitiveness, in the end she rises quietly to the ocassion with a simple, unobtrusive, selfless act of enormous grace.

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