The curious, smart, free-spirited nine-year old played by Lucia Snieg is the driving energy of Kept and Dreamless, a sometimes false but nevertheless fascinating film that studies the lives of a mother and daughter who've swapped the traditional roles of who nurtures who. Young Snieg gives a great young performance as a girl who is smart and knows the kind of care she needs and isn't getting, but is still very much a child.
Eugenia doesn't expect much--and usually gets less--from her coke-addled mother, played by Vera Fogwill, who also wrote the screenplay and co-directed the film with Martin Desalvo. For example, after sleeping through most of her daughter's birthday, Florence sees what she's done, and runs out to rectify the matter. Her solution: a visit to the local junkyard to catch a stray cat to give as a present. She's pregnant with another child, but pocketed the cash her mother gave her for an abortion and decided to have the child, I guess because raising one kid is too easy.
Fogwill and Desalvo craft a loosely structured film built on a variety of aspects from the characters' lives. Some of the moments, such as Eugenia's time with an older neighbor who collects pharmaceuticals, feel forced, feel forced, while others reflect natural moments of happiness. Cinematographer Nicolas Trovato's striking compositions are always compelling, pulling in the eye with moody lighting and strong characters.
The economic crisis that severely weakened Argentina starting in 1999 served as inspiration to the country's cinema, prompting many filmmakers to examine class divisions and the coping process of those who had to rapidly change their lifestyles. (See the carefully observed character study Live-In Maid for an excellent example.) Kept and Dreamless pushes many of these themes, showing both main and peripheral characters who have lost everything, most prominently Florence, who came from a middle-class family and was expected to become a doctor, not a deadbeat drug addict who cheats her mother and neglects her daughter. Meanwhile, her former best friend from school married a rich husband. The contrast between Florence's messy, candle-lit apartment and her friend's white, sterile, flatly lit luxury apartment provides a smart commentary on both class and lifestyle.
But one gets the feeling that no matter what the surrounding economic situation, these characters would be where they are. Florence is so lazy and unmotivated that if money were falling from the sky, she couldn't be bothered to pick it up. Her life strategy seems based on sitting on the couch and letting things magically get better. Eugenia manages to get her mother a job with her old friend from school, but after a month or so she just decides not to go to work. Forget the backup, she never has a plan at all.
The film goes particularly off-key on this day-to-day living during the final third, when it aims to show a feeling of peace arise amongst the characters. The problem is, we don't really see where it comes from. Peace and contentment never really arrive when you can't get your daughter to school, buy food or keep your electricity on.
When I reviewed The Kite, also from the Global Lens series and First Run Features, I commented that it's hard to be hyper-critical of DVDs for films like Kept and Dreamless that might otherwise never find their way to US distribution. Unfortunately, however, someone made a glaring error in the authoring of this disc that must be addressed. The DVD mistakenly stretches its image one-third wider than its intended aspect ratio.
Here's the deal: Kept and Dreamless was, based on all the information available to me, shot in an aspect-ratio of 1.85:1. At the core of the disc is a decent transfer in a 4x3 frame, letterboxed to its (presumably) correct ratio and pictureboxed to please those with (and annoy those without) overscanning TVs. (Also annoying: The second-line of the burned-in subtitles cuts across the letterbox bar, so you can't zoom to the picture's height with your widescreen TV.) These details alone would not overjoy your obsessive videophile, but the the real problem is less typical. There is a flag on the DVD that tells the player that the transfer is anamorphic, and therefore needs to be stretched.
So your DVD player will display an image like this, resulting in an aspect ratio of 2.24:1:
When it should actually look like this:
The folks at First Run Features told us that there is indeed a problem while playing the disc on computers, but that it works for them on TVs. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case in my testing. But depending on your equipment and your setup, you can probably watch the film correctly with a little maneuvering. With an analogue hookup on a 16x9 TV, it only takes the press of a button or two to fix (namely the one labeled "aspect" or "wide" that zooms and stretches the picture in various ways). Some 16x9 TVs won't let you squish video from HDMI, but others will. If you still live in the 20th Century with a 4x3 television, your only recourse will be to go into your DVD player's preferences and tell it you have a 16x9 TV. (You'll have to switch it back afterwards to ensure proper display of your correctly authored discs.) If you're on a computer, your software may or may not let you display the picture in a ratio different from that dictated by the disc. If all else fails, the open-source freeware VLC player allows you to pick from a variety of aspect ratios (in this case, you'll want to select 4x3).
The film comes with its original Spanish-language stereo track, which is well balanced with natural location sounds and musical interludes. I already commented on the positioning of the burnt-in English subtitles, which can't be turned off.
The disc's only extras are the trailer for the Global Lens 2008 Series, a gallery featuring capsule descriptions of other Global Lens films, and a fact sheet with bios and other information, accessible as a pdf via the DVD-ROM drive on your computer. The best part of the fact sheet is the brief director's statement, discussing what the filmmakers were trying to achieve.
While not always honest about the plight of its characters, Kept and Dreamless is an interesting study that examines low-down life without pity or judgement. Due to the flaws in both the film and the disc, it's hard to recommend anything higher than a rental. Even if you want to own the title, it may be a good idea to check out the disc beforehand and make sure the picture displays correctly on your setup.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.