Review: Writer-Director Lila Avilés' "Tótem"
This image released by Sideshow and Janus Films shows Mateo Garcia, left, and Naíma Sentíes in a scene from "Totem." (Sideshow and Janus Films via AP)

For a film about death, Lila Avilés' "Tótem" is extraordinarily lived in.

Avilés' camera roams through the festive, cluttered gathering of an extended family as they prepare for a birthday celebration that evening. Watching it all is the 7-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), whose father, Tonatiuh or "Tona" (Mateo Garcia), is to be feted.

The scenes are familiar, unfolding with a natural, warm disorder. Tona's sisters are there. Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) is working in the kitchen and dyeing her hair. Nuri (Montserrat Marañón) is making a cake while her own daughter, Ester (Saori Gurza), lurks about. There's bickering and laughter.

But humdrum as all of this is, colossal and devastating happenings are at work in "Tótem." When we sporadically spy Tona, who stays in his bedroom for much of the film, he's weak and strikingly gaunt, debilitated by cancer. In the film's opening moments, Sol is riding in her mother's (Iazua Larios) car. While passing beneath a bridge, they hold their breath and make a wish.

"Should I tell you what it was?" Sol says after emerging from the darkness. "I wished for Daddy not to die."

With that, the film's title credit appears, allowing you a quick moment to pick your heart off the floor and steel yourself for whatever is to come.

That name, Sol, is a hint. Planets are in motion. Young Sol spends much of "Tótem" spying on another world, the adult world, a place buzzing with activity that seems strangely, perhaps, distracted from the crushing calamity right down the hall.

Everyone around Sol seems intent on shielding her from it. Her family's interactions aren't in any way cruel, but they're trying to put a happy face on it. For the party, Sol is dressed in a clown wig and nose. She wants to see her dad, but she's told repeatedly that she can't. He's resting.

Are they protecting her or distracting her? Either way, in this impeccably observed, achingly soulful film, Sol sees through it. She's too perceptive. Though "Tótem" sometimes drifts to other perspectives, it stays closest to Sol. The movie resides in her watchful eyes, and the dawning dread welling up behind them. A world, for Sol, is being eclipsed.

"Tótem," which was Mexico's shortlisted Oscar submission and begins its theatrical release Friday, more than confirms the talent flashed by Avilés in her 2018 debut "The Chambermaid." The year is young, but you're unlikely to see a film as richly textured as Avilés' masterful child's-eye view of death and family.

Part of the film's power is in how organically the movie unfolds, free of sentimentality or overemphasis. Cinematographer Diego Tenorio shifts room to room and character to character, as if visiting interplanetary bodies in constant orbit around each other. Sometimes, they can feel genuinely alien. The grave-faced grandfather Roberto (Alberto Amador), who tends to bonsai trees, speaks through a device that renders his halting speech robotic.

But this is, most assuredly, Earth we're on. In the home where the family has gathered, Avilés occasionally turns her focus toward not just each character but some of the insect life that makes its way through the house. Tona may die, but life won't stop moving. In the face of that cold truth, wishes and spirituality have scant usefulness. A psychic is brought in to cleanse the space, with comical results.

And it's that profoundly melancholy perspective on the constant churn of life that so distinguishes "Tótem." Sol is resistant. When the party starts and friends and family have gathered in the garden outside, she solitarily sits on the roof, contemptuously looking down at them.

Later, when they move inside for a kind of talent show to cheer Tona, Sol dresses up, sitting on her mother's shoulders while a cape hides her mom. Sol, lip-syncing opera, stands tall and performs like an adult beyond her years. Before they begin, her mother opens and closes the cape like a magic act.

"Now there's two of us," she says. "Now just one."

"Tótem," a Sideshow and Janus Films release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 95 minutes. Four stars out of four.



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