Coming of age films are a plentiful breed among Hollywood’s output, but they’re far from an American phenomenon. Teens come of age all over the world, and while there are cultural or geographic differences the core elements remain the same. No matter the language you speak or the land you call home, it’s not easy navigating the bloody waters of your teenage years. Uruguay is the latest country to enter the fray with Lucia Garibaldi‘s sharp, darkly funny, and hypnotic feature debut, The Sharks.
We first meet Rosina (Romina Bentancur) as she’s glancing over her shoulder and running away from some unseen follower. She finds safety in the ocean as we discover her pursuer is her father, upset about an interaction between Rosina and her older sister that has left the other girl with a temporary eye patch. “It was an accident,” says Rosina, but we’re not entirely sure that’s accurate. She’s fourteen years old and fairly bored by the uneventful life of a working family struggling financially in the slow days before summer tourist season starts, but she helps out at her father’s landscaping business out of duty and to fill her otherwise lazy days. The town’s biggest point of excitement is the rumor of a shark circling just offshore threatening to take a bite out of tourism dollars, but while Rosina’s actually glimpsed the beast she’s found a bigger focus elsewhere. While her sister’s already experienced sexually — or at least prone to talking about it — Rosina’s interests are only just arising, and they point her towards a twenty-something co-worker named Joselo (Federico Morosini). For all of her outward-facing coolness, though, her road towards getting his attention hits some awkward and disturbing bumps.
The Sharks is something truly special as both it and its lead move hypnotically to the beat of their own drum (and to a rhythmic sync score). Garibaldi’s script is funny at times, but never in a laugh out loud or cheap kind of way. Instead there’s humor in Rosina’s observations and efforts. There’s an undercurrent of danger and suspense, too, as her choices — and she makes some real doozies — leave viewers unsure which direction she’ll choose and how far she’ll take it. It turns out the line between frustrated teenager and budding sociopath is a very fine one.
One constant throughout her actions is that, through trial and error, Rosina quickly comes clear as someone who has no time for other people’s bullshit expectations. She stands up for herself when challenged, she resists peer pressures to embellish or lie about sexual activity, and her first actual moment of intimacy with Joselo doesn’t quite go according to anyone’s plan. He pleasures himself in front of her and tells her to do the same, and the look on her face — a blend of disappointment, indifference, and realization — is absolutely priceless. She’s not there to play his game of forgettable conquest, but while he quickly loses interest in her she’s not quite done exploring her feelings regarding him.
Newcomer Bentancur is fairly mesmerizing to watch as she navigates her surroundings with a clumsy determination and the scent of danger, and her performance leaves viewers both uneasy and unsure with what Rosina will do next. Her choices are always unexpected, but it’s clear they make perfect sense to her at the time, and they culminate in one final act on her part — something that beautifully and exquisitely ties the film’s shark themes together both narratively and metaphorically — that ends the film with a sweetly sinister smile.
As with the best coming of age movies there are numerous moments here that nearly every viewer will identify with from family fights to the hurt we feel when the one we like clearly likes someone else, but Garibaldi also fills the film’s slight running time with atmosphere and instances many of us have never known. We quickly feel at home in this town, though, and a part of its steadily pulsating rhythm as we move through the days. Garibaldi’s direction pairs with cinematographer German Nocella‘s camera to capture a beautiful, working landscape and the teenager with teeth still finding her way within it.