The first thing we see in “Everything Else” is a look of emptiness. Doña Flor (Adriana Barraza), a middle-aged public servant who has spent 35 years engaged in an utterly boring routine, blankly stares at nothing in particular. Soon, we learn why: As a Mexico City clerk tasked with issuing government IDs, her days are spent assessing paperwork and mechanically processing new requests. Much of this quiet, slow-burn character study inhabits the dreary, remote quality of Doña’s existence, but with time, the movie pieces it together to reveal the emotional solitude lurking beneath that distant gaze.
Anyone familiar with Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” or Lucretia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” will find familiar patterns in writer-director Natalia Almada’s first narrative feature, though it may as well be an extension of her documentary work for the way it pulls viewers into the nuances of everyday rituals and their ability to mask psychological discord. Much of “Everything Else” finds Doña cycling through a series of limited environments: the shadowy interiors of her apartment, where she finds the only semblance of companionship from her cat; her brownish office, where she sits robotically for hours on end; and the crowded subways, where she witnesses clusters of vivid life while remaining isolated from all of it.
At first, it seems as though Almada’s content to merely linger in these rhythms and call it a day. The first act of “Everything Else” could be looped on a museum wall and provide a keen window into the mundane sights and sounds of a stable life. But “Everything Else” actually uses its gradual pace to pose a question — how did Doña’s life get so boring and lonely? — and quietly addresses that mystery will a series of subtle clues. When she wakes up one day to find that her cat has died, the scene is an epiphany, forcing Doña to shed her cold exterior and open the door to memories of a dark past that she has struggles to repress.
So much of the drama involves Doña’s internal duress that the actress often carries the movie with minuscule gestures. Barraza is best known internationally for her performances in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s “Amores Perros” and “Babel,” but “Everything Else” presents the 61-year-old actress with an ideal showcase for her skills — and a welcome challenge to Hollywood norms that tend to ignore meaty roles for woman over the age of 40. Barraza not only turns Doña into a convincing study of tragedy in closeup; she’s able to convey the worldly experiences of a person who has suffered insurmountable pain and learned to bury it with tedium.
Cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman’s credits include both the Mexican drug war thriller “Heli” and Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment,” the sad look at a terrible standup comedian. “Everything Else” echoes bits of both films: It develops a narrative out of its drab tableaux by calling attention to the profound turmoil of a person trapped within it.
There are limitations to this approach, and even once “Everything Else” lays all its cards on the table, it doesn’t fully justify the epic journey. However, as the first indication of Almada’s narrative filmmaking approach, it makes a strong impression. Above all else, it’s a wise exploration of what it feels like to flee from a troubled world by ignoring its sorrows — until the world decides it’s time for a wakeup call.
“Everything Else” premiered at the Rome Film Festival in 2016 and won the Golden Gate New Directors prize at the 2017 SF International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.