Argentinian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo shot onto the scene in 2007 with her startling directorial debut XXY, which conveyed the quest for an intersex individual to discover their definitive gender identity. Regrettably, however, though eying up a curious enough premise again this time, Puenzo can’t prize anymore than a cursory level of intrigue out of it, the result being a disappointingly flaccid, forgettable drama that was capable of so much more.
Taking place in Patagonia in 1960, the story follows an Argentinian family traveling along a 300km desert road, as they encounter a German doctor who asks to tag along. While at first taken with the man’s charm, wit and money, things take a disturbing turn when he begins sizing up the family’s 12-year-old daughter, Lilith aka Wakolda (Florencia Bado), who has bones that are too small for her age. Gradually, the family discovers the man’s dark past, dating back to one of the most heinous atrocities in recent human history.
The enormously long desert road that Lilith’s family drives along at the start of the film proves as potentially ripe an existential metaphor as a road has ever been in fiction, though Puenzo clearly has other ideas, as the journey itself is glossed over, and the family, with their tag-along doctor friend in tow, soon enough set about laying some roots down. From here Puenzo leaps off to attempt to imbue her film with a real sense of tension, achieved through the ambiguity of the doctor’s interest in Lilith; asking the audience to consider whether or not he is a pederast allows for some easy suspense in the early portions of the film.
The man’s leering glances certainly seem to convey the answer, though soon enough some suggestive, near-subliminal glimpses of Holocaust images begin to find their way into the film. While his insistence to take Lilith’s blood and perform an X-ray is undeniably creepy, it’s his further demand that she take pills to enhance her bone growth that proves truly insidious. Enhancing the eeriness is the fact that Lilith’s parents disappear off-screen for long stretches while most of this is going on in the early stages. All she can hope for is that the local librarian, who has begun to play sleuth, can come to her rescue.
While a depraved premise such as this should be fascinating, Puenzo curiously makes of it a dreadfully snoozy affair, which surely would have benefited from lashings of dark humor, of which the film is seemingly completely bereft. Instead, the juxtaposition of 200 doll prototypes the doctor has made for Lilith’s father (in a seeming attempt to win him over) with the atrocities of the Holocaust feels a tad clumsy, and in honesty, one almost hoped the dolls would come to life, Childs Play style, just to spruce things up a little. Instead, we get a relatively straight-forward narrative that unfolds at the most glacial pace.
Though the third act raises a curious dilemma that concedes an unexpectedly soupy morality – given how much of a clear-cut baddie the doctor is – the slack direction fails to make the most of the tense situation at hand, especially considering it revolves around two newborn twins. Furthermore, the risibly misguided use of a rock music score during the final chase climax seems like a totally ridiculous affectation given how opposed it is to everything subtle and quiet that preceded it. At the end of the day, an ominous premise gains little traction by way of Puenzo’s plodding approach.
The Upside: The curious concept will peak your interest at first; the performances are generally rock-solid
The Downside: It’s all about the execution, and this one barely registers a pulse
On the Side: Puenzo’s XXY won the 2008 Goya (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.