Welcome to a world of gray light you never knew you needed. Too Late to Die Young is the third feature from the portentous 32-year-old writer/director from Chile, Dominga Sotomayor Castillo. For those of you that saw her debut feature, Thursday Till Sunday (2012), you’ll notice a recurring theme in her newest film. In the early stages of her (hopefully lengthy) career, Castillo has set herself apart in her ability to exhibit coming-of-age stories of little women. They might be teens or pre-teens, but they harness an undeniable maturity at their core that Castillo draws out over the course of the films as if she has some arcane access to their potential and she wants to let us in on the secret.
In Too Late to Die Young, Castillo presents a teen, 16 and anxiously counting, who often seems more like an adult. She is Sofia (Demian Hernández). It’s 1990 and she lives in a remote society in the woods much like the focal family of Captain Fantastic (2016), but she lives amongst many, a small democratic community of families who look more like family friends from the city on a camping trip than civilization-abandoning radicals, though they are neither. The summer of 1990 was a momentous time in Chile. A long-reigning military dictator finally gave up and democracy returned. Although we’re never entirely sure why they live in the woods, we can assume the socio-political setting has something to do with it. But it remains unseen, abstract historical scenery. Castillo’s camera is interested in the woods, the community, and, most importantly, Sofia.
She has a boyish look—thin, willowy, lithe like a dancer—and a chic shortcut, but her pomp is that of a successful metropolitan model. The bright heathered light splits the limbs they live among as it lands on Sofia’s face, cigarette between her lips, cynicism in her stare, hope for life in the city buried back in her eyes. She resolutely rebukes her father when he tells her to quit smoking. He doesn’t bark back. He is a single father. His wife, their mother, went back to civilization for good. Sofia longs to join her. Until she can, she lives out her dreary summer in the Chilean country among the trees, the rocky hills, and the forested waterfalls.
Her best friend Lucas (Antar Machado) clearly loves her, but his luscious curls and rock star persona aren’t enough to tear her felicitous stare from Ignacio (Matías Oviedo), a cool, collected twenty-something that frequents the wooded society. The two share the second most beautiful sequence in the film—a long tracking shot of a romantic motorcycle ride at sunset in which Sofia grips Ignacio tightly, her eyes closed as the wind rushes through what little hair she has (see: header image). The fact that Sofia considers herself a potential lover for the much older Ignacio is a sure-fire sign that the agedness we see in her on-screen is no mere projection. It isn’t long before she is avoiding Lucas as much as possible, casting disinterested looks his way like she is insulted by his romantic implications because of his age (which is the same as hers).
The majority of the film is comprised of brief moments that set a mood more than they develop a particular plotline. There is a narrative at play, but the film doesn’t give you the feeling that it will wrap up neatly at any point. Instead, the camera lingers. We spend as much time with Sofia and Ignacio as we do with Sofia silently soaking in the tub. The most beautifully provocative sequence is one of these still tub scenes. The bath sits next to an open window, gray-green plants all around, light filling every inch of the room and accentuating the rising steam. Sofia’s head is barely above the water, but she still manages to smoke a cigarette. Mazzy Star’s slow, gentle, shoegazey “Fade into You” fills the soundscape, signifying Sofia’s inner cry toward Ignacio and the city, and simultaneously revealing her youth in her slicked-back hair. That the film can dig out such substance from its characters in these lingering moments is one of its greatest strengths.
Too Late to Die Young abounds in its performances, Hernández certainly chief among them, its screenplay in which so much is left rhythmically unspoken, its bountiful direction, and its heartbreaking, hopeful, and always-relatable coming-of-age narrative. However, it lures you from the beginning with its dreamy gray-lit gaze, every color muted to a hazy, creamy, dulcet tone. Such cinematography can make or break a film. It isn’t inherently a great style. If the same lenses and lighting were used to shoot Stanley Kubrick’s gorgeously photographed Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the pop of multi-colored Christmas lights, vibrancy of rich red carpet, and darkness of velvety black robes would be subdued to harmful effect. But cinematographer Inti Briones couldn’t have executed the style in a more deserving environment, for a more deserving film.
The last twenty minutes is a magically mournful glimpse at all of the scattered stories that have been introduced. It plays out at a long-awaited, community-wide New Year’s Eve party, which adds a culminating quality to the sensational finale. Don’t come for the answers, but stay knowing you won’t get some of them. The film is better for it. It’s no wonder why Castillo was awarded Locarno’s Leopard for Best Director in August (the first woman ever to win the award). Too Late to Die Young is one of the year’s most engaging and engulfing films—a moody, majestic, and savory display of life on the outside, grounded in traditional realism but brimming with tranquil elegance.