In Lake Tahoe, director
and co-writer Fernando Eimbcke displays a gentle but controlled sensibility
in telling a quiet story that has an almost universal resonance.
To clear up confusion straight away, I should point out to those interested
that the film's title has no relation to its locale. Lake
Tahoe is set firmly in contemporary Mexico, although I can't be
more specific than that. Nevertheless, there is logic behind the
title, which I won't explain here. Eimbcke's film won major
prizes at the Berlin and Cartegena Film Festivals, and at the Mexican
Academy Awards (the Ariels), yet it only had a limited theatrical release
in North America. We are lucky that Film Movement snapped up the
DVD rights of this fine film.
A young teenager named Juan
(Diego Catano) crashes his little red Nissan sedan into a telephone
pole on the outskirts of town. He spends the better part of the
day trying to find a new distributor harness so he can restart the car,
which is otherwise not terribly damaged. He patiently contends
with Don Heber (Hector Herrera), a retired mechanic, and his pet mastiff;
Lucia (Daniela Valentine), a female clerk at an auto shop; and her young
martial-arts obsessed colleague, David (Juan Carlos Lara II), in trying
to get his car fixed. When Juan takes a break from these proceedings
to check in at home, he finds his younger brother Joaquin (Yemil Sefani)
playing in a tent erected in their sandy yard, and their mother sulking
and smoking in the bathtub. We come to understand at about this
time that Juan's father has recently died. This set of circumstances
drives Juan once again from the house, determined to get his car fixed
and impose some sort of order on his life.
The film opens with static,
formally-composed shots of Juan's neighborhood, spliced with short
interstitial moments of black, blank screen. This device allows
the imagery to sink in, and forces a moment of consideration on the
part of the viewer. Since there is rather limited dialogue in
the film, these spaces are important. For some, this film will
be far too slow. But I found a finely-tuned tension to be present
throughout, especially in Juan's interactions with the other characters.
Juan is a quiet boy, likely
made more so by the loss of his father. Lucia, the clerk at the
auto parts shop, is Juan's age - too young, in many ways, to have
given birth to her infant son Fidel. She loves music and clearly
has ambitions beyond her present station in life. At one point,
she places her wailing boy in Juan's arms; when her son promptly falls
asleep, something stirs in her - a sense of trust that we know Juan
may not come to understand for many years. Later in the film,
when Juan and Lucia fall into one another's arms, there is a sense
that fate is at work. Awkward, nascent teenage romance has rarely
been handled so frankly and fondly.
More important in the total
scope of Lake Tahoe, however, is the relationship between Juan
and his younger brother Joaquin. About seven or eight, Joaquin
spends much of the film playing in a tent in their yard. With
their mother nearly catatonic with grief, Juan is faced with a new level
of responsibility toward his brother. The scenes in which he demonstrates
that he is aware of and equipped for the task are easily the most moving
in the film.
Lake Tahoe feels less
scripted than storyboarded. The camera takes us through the story
with more authority than the dialogue does. Each shot is part
of a series of shots; each series of shots is part of a longer cohesive
sequence; and so on. The film feels simultaneously hermetic and
organic. In my view, its visual and editorial composition represents
a masterwork of storytelling economy, especially when taken together
with the very limited dialogue. At a mere 81 minutes, Lake
Tahoe feels fuller and richer than its short length might suggest.
In service of this achievement,
Eimbcke wisely leaves out ancillary expository details - the manner
of Juan's father's death, for example, and the question of a memorial
service. The standard formalities associated with deaths in the
family are hidden in Lake Tahoe, because this sort of irrelevant
data would weigh down the mood-driven character dynamics and distract
the audience from the film's heart.
That heart is Juan, and we
follow him closely. His behavior, more than his words, is what
interests us. Diego Catana, playing Juan, carries the entire film
and is simply remarkable. He invests the role with an ego-free
awkwardness endemic in many young men of that age. It's a seemingly
effortless performance of a sort we almost never see from teenaged actors.
Lake Tahoe is a quiet film whose methods and moods bring to mind the work of Abbas Kiarostami and Michelangelo Antonioni. Co-writer and director Fernando Eimbcke shows that he has the capacity to grow into a filmmaker whose work is as indelible as that of those giants. Lake Tahoe is an impressive, restrained, carefully controlled observation of teenage experience that deserves a lasting reputation. Highly recommended.