Wednesday 29 November 2023

Let 'em in: "Totem"

Lila Avilé
s is the Mexican writer-director who enjoyed a surprise crossover hit in 2018 with her sharp social satire The Chambermaid. Her follow-up Totem presents as cutesier on the surface. As in Carson McCullers' novel The Member of the Wedding or Claude Miller's loose film adaptation An Impudent Girl, a family gathering is observed from the kneehigh perspective of one of the younger invitees. Gradually, however, the film reveals a depth of purpose and observation. The occasion is a birthday party organised for an ailing, stick-thin young father, Tonatiuh (Mateo García Elizondo, grandson of Gabriel García Márquez, no less), whom we quickly intuit may not have many more birthdays left. Yet it's the location we're shown round by his seven-year-old offspring Sol (Naíma Sentíes) which first grabs the attention: an overstuffed bohemian retreat, crammed full of animals and antiquities, and now a ramshackle group of people who don't obviously or easily fit together. (The bathrooms are always engaged whenever someone really needs them.) They're a kooky bunch: by way of clan patriarch, a therapist with a voicebox who conducts counselling sessions with his study door wide open; three daughters with markedly disparate looks and attitudes; a medium invited in by one of the latter to purge the house of evil spirits, a process that apparently requires the burning of a bread roll on the end of a long stick. (You wonder if she didn't just mishear "barbeque" for "birthday party".) And then there are the kids, not old enough (yet) to be quite this doolally, but alert enough to sense undercurrents, shifts in mood; left to their own devices by grown-ups with plenty on their plates and minds, they roam, sometimes scurry from room to room, picking up insects, cutting up banknotes, slurping from abandoned bottles of wine, and brightly asking Siri when the world is going to end. (No answer.) Two films into this career, and it's clear: here is a director who doesn't recoil from the mess of life so much as revel in it.

This tendency manifests above all else in Avilés' often funny framing. A cherub is plonked atop a fridge so mama can get on with baking a cake. ("It's dirty up here," the kid notes, busy lacing a pet cat's coffee with tuna.) Sol's assiduously constructed pillow fort collapses after the patio door she's used as a rearguard is suddenly opened. There's a hilarious reveal around the half-hour, as our heroine breaches a hitherto unexamined room of teenagers playing video games with a giant, Digby-like sheepdog for a companion; in the context of this household, they are as the Japanese soldiers who manned the trenches long after WW2 concluded. Where The Chambermaid made its mischief in a necessarily sterile environment, Totem parachutes us into a place where there is a lot going on, not all of it visible to the naked eye. Crucially, Avilés doesn't force any of it, adhering instead to the chaotically precise conditions of a shoot that had to have been semi-improvised going by the results, with the adults snatching serious conversations about the patient's condition behind the little ones' backs. (It's one of those films I suspect you could put on and persuade an older relative was actually a documentary.) There are limitations with this particular style of looseness: Totem never quite gathers the narrative force of The Chambermaid, nor of Carla Simón's similarly framed dramas Summer 1993 and Alcarràs. Yet you might still be touched by the film's underlying generosity, and Avilés' efforts to allow each member of her ensemble a moment or two to cherish. Totem has the distinct look and feel of a post-lockdown project: inviting just about everyone in its maker's address book to turn up and give a toast before the end credits, it's a reminder of the joys of togetherness, and how important it remains to celebrate and commemorate certain milestones. The bonus is that, along the way, Avilés also captures something that hasn't often been caught on film: the distraction and displacement activity that goes on whenever we know one of our tribe is not long for this world. The true subject of Totem, it turns out, is people making the very best of a regrettable - and unavoidable - situation.

Totem opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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