It’s not difficult to recognize stories that have been reverse-engineered, those that fashion individual characters and contrive to bring those disparate souls together in the most convenient way possible. Far more rare is the tale that begins from a center and organically evolves, unwittingly capturing its ancillary players. Carlos Vermut’s “Magical Girl” certainly feels like the latter, weaving its troubled lives together with ample sorrow.
The impetus for all of this intrigue is a sudden hospital visit for Alicia, a 12-year-old girl living with leukemia. Her father Luis (Luis Bermejo) learns that Alicia is terminal (a detail never explicitly stated but delivered in the first clear example that Vermut is in complete control of his story). After Alicia is released, he stumbles across Alicia’s diary, discovering her wish to own a dress identical to one worn by her favorite anime star. When the price tag turns out to be far beyond his dwindling savings, Luis begins a quest to bring his daughter some comfort during her health struggles.
With an ever-increasing sense of desperation, Luis casts out for a number of different fresh income sources and what initially seems like a lo-fi Hallmark Movie Channel premise steadily distorts and sours, evolving into a fateful web of chance encounters. Luis’ efforts, ranging from the simple to the pathetic, eventually cross him with the emotionally adrift Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a stay-at-home wife of a well-off psychiatrist.
Each of the film’s three acts centers on a different featured player in the story. The circumstances of Luis and Bárbara’s chance meeting are as surprising as the ones left in the wake of Luis’ eventual departure. In turn, Bárbara assumes her own task out of necessity, which forces her to confront a handful of key figures from her past, one of which becomes the thrust of the film’s finale. Vermut joins these characters with a scalpel-like precision and then mines the aftermath of their interaction for some heavy psychological wizardry.
DP Santiago Racaj’s camera is as unwavering as Vermut’s script, giving only the most necessary of information, unwavering in its attention to detail. As each character pursues their inevitable target, be it a stranger walking across the street or a ghastly fate awaiting beyond an unlocked door, the audience is denied the luxury of following along with a tracking shot. Whatever transpires will happen from a fixed view; we’re rooted to our spot as these characters hurdle towards their respective fates.
The Bárbara chapter brings in ideas of morality and national identity that don’t reframe the story as a hammer-hitting metaphor, but instead add storytelling layers that begin to sink in once the full narrative is in view. Despite the compact number of additional players that are drawn into the fulfillment of Alicia’s wish, the fable still manages to feel expansive with the consequences of each terrifying development.
Bermejo, Lennie and José Sacristán as the elder Damián all play the dual sides of their charges with equal delicateness. None of the three emerge as master manipulators, but each actor unlocks a unique sense of terror when confronted with their victimhood. Vermut has a knack for establishing relationship dynamics in an instant, and it doesn’t hurt to have supporting players like Elisabet Gelabert (as Ada, an enigmatic former acquaintance Bárbara would probably just as soon forget) who can command the requisite interest in minimal amounts of screen time.
There is dark, deft plotting on display here: No character development or line of dialogue feels extraneous, and to watch those elements gradually return to the proceedings is its own reward. Even the order of each new revelation has its own function. Some new bits of information toward the end of the middle chapter are so carefully planted that even the tiniest detail can inform the hours of offscreen action that we’re spared, all the while preserving a chilling level of ambiguity.
All of these intertwining narratives build to a conclusion that is decidedly more overstated than the slow burn of events preceding it, but they cement the idea of these parallel stories as ripples that become more unruly as they flow from the center. When the most sinister forces at work begin to permeate the most innocent of spaces, there’s only a certain amount of satisfaction that can come from the logical conclusion they help bring about. But in keeping with the old truism of journeys being superior to destinations, following that circuitous path has its own viewing rewards.
“Magical Girl” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and won both the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the San Sebastian Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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