REVIEW: Tiger Burning Bright: "25 Watts" Lights Up
by Mark Peranson
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Mark Peranson reviewed "25 Watts" earlier this year at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the film will screen at the Latin Beat! festival this week in New York.]
As low key as its sub-luminous title, the Uruguyan Tiger-winner "25 Watts," co-directed by first-timers Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, takes as its obvious models the oh so quirky dialogue-driven American independent cinema of the early 1990s. Please continue reading. In following three lackadaisically ordinary high school compadres on a lazy Saturday in Montevideo, the directors slowly and slyly capture the specific rhythms of their own place and the general anomie of youth headed nowhere, very slowly. As much as I despise this kind of characterization, "25 Watts" is the kind of film that wins you over with its good nature and its charm. The only noise that "25 Watts" makes is that made when someone walks by you, shuffling their feet -- but that's the kind of modesty that makes the film honestly appealing.
It's fair to say that a film has an inauspicious beginning when its opening salvos of humor are derived from one of its characters accidentally stepping in a pile of dog shit. Yet that's how "25 Watts" begins: with Leche (Daniel Hendler, also the star of Daniel Burman's "Waiting for the Messiah") and his two friends, Javi and Seba, having stayed up all Friday night, entertaining themselves by playing tricks like ringing random doorbells and running away. In these early scenes, Rebella and Stoll's camera keeps a distance, yet a careful dynamic is introduced that has much to do with the way the characters treat others: Javi seems more like the leader; Leche, who has also fallen for his Italian tutor (he's failed his Italian exam five times already), is the one who's picked on; and Seba, well, Seba seems kinda brain dead.
A debate rages, the way that one starts an argument when there's nothing better to do: Is stepping in dog shit a harbinger of 24 hours of bad or good luck? "25 Watts" goes on to show how the answer may be no luck at all. There's about as much to do in Montevideo as in a post-film festival Rotterdam. The rest of the weekend day is occupied by "Slacker"-like moments, odd characters wandering in and out of frame, and small events that take on importance for our wobbly protagonists, who, unsure of themselves or just plain unconfident, prefer to listen rather than saying anything of importance. (Most likely, they've got nothing much that's important on their minds.)
The dog-food eating Javi has to deal with his girlfriend, who has given him a hamster as a present -- supposedly another harbinger, this one of an impending break-up -- and his boss' son, who is eager to catch him screwing up and fire him from his job as a driver of a car that blares pasta commercials. Along with raising enough courage to call his Italian tutor, Leche has to handle his slow neighbor, who has lost his dog, Ulysses. And Seba just wants to rent a movie. They're also incredibly lazy, so much so that they play rock, paper, scissors just to see who will answer a door. Of course, by the time a winner has been decided -- best three of five -- there's nobody there.
As the storylines of the three characters diverge, the directors and actors are given space to work on detailing each of their particularities -- initially, there's a fear that the three will remain undeveloped ciphers. Yet as it creaks along, Rebella and Stoll toss in some well-placed close-ups and some tasty flourishes -- while Leche studies for his exam by guzzling a bottle of wine, we're given a rotating shot supposedly from the view of a spinning record, playing a Uruguayan band from the 60s that sounds remarkably like the Rolling Stones, singing in English to boot. (Ironically, there's not enough music in the film.)
This rotating record, a pseudo remake, provides a good metaphor. If you haven't figured it out yet, the filmic recipe is patently clear: take one dose of Linklater for episodic structure; a heaping tablespoon of Jarmusch for quirky distance and glorious black-and-white tracking shots; and a pinch of Kevin Smith circa "Clerks" for an ill-advised escapade in a video store, where Seba rents some Swedish erotica and, after being hijacked by some older thugs and being called "the King of International Porn," ends up watching it alongside Leche's comatose grandmother. Okay, this does get amusing, partly because the Smith stuff is kept to a minimum, and countered by the characters' unassuming dough-headedness.
These are all influences more than acknowledged by the directors -- thankfully, their admiration for "Kids" remains off-screen -- and these 26-year-old kids are pretty much just all right. Each year, there seems to be one Tiger eminently concerned with droning, youthful rhythms; usually, and not coincidentally, it's made by a very young director (see past Tiger winner "Hazy Life").
"25 Watts" is no exception. It is also a representative of a neophyte industry, if, indeed, one can say Uruguay has a film industry, at all. "25 Watts" is one of very few features ever to have been made in the country -- no more than 20 in its history, and less than three in the last two years. Even fewer have actually been shot, like "25 Watts," on film. The country's relative obscurity is given props in the film, when it's revealed that there is only one Uruguayan in the Guinness Book of World Records -- a guy who clapped his hands for five days straight. And, again, a deed that seems to yield resonance onto life in the north of South America.
As opposed to North Americans, who might rip off Smith, Linklater, Jarmusch, et. al., for some kind of postmodern irony, Rebella and Stoll do it with feeling, and possess a greater commitment to realism than any of their idols. With its surface level "been there, done that" guise, I can safely assert that American critics who see this film will charge that the anxiety of its influence is overwhelming. Yet as a critic who has never been to Montevideo, but who does remember what it's like to be aimless, Rebella and Stoll have given me a real sense of what 'they' think it's like to live in their hometown. Even if, in this case, it might mean there's one less country for me to visit.
[Mark Peranson is the editor of Cinema Scope magazine and a programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival.]