At the 71st Locarno Film Festival this week, several films explored themes of youth through narrative strategies that expand and complicate conventional coming-of-age tales. Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor’s second feature “Too Late to Die Young” is set in a semi-organised and very ramshackle community living in a forest above Santiago in 1990. Based on her own upbringing, the film recreates a dreamlike world of parched trees and DIY cabins.
Images are filtered by smoke and sunshine, and the soundtrack is a nostalgic mix of Mazzy Star and Sinead O’Connor. Its 16-year-old protagonist, appropriately named Sofía, appears wiser and older than her years. The film is on one hand a chronicle of Sofía’s first love, and on the other, an ensemble piece that explores Chile’s own post-dictatorship coming of age. Play is an important element throughout and takes many forms—adults prepare a New Year’s celebration, teenagers compose songs, and children clamber through trees. Generations constantly intermingle, with many a poignant or comedic moment when younger children adopt adult roles. Sotomayor’s is a light touch, but one that lingers.
An atmosphere—specifically, one of latent threat—also lingers after watching Virgil Vernier’s second fiction feature, “Sophia Antipolis.” Composed of five obliquely related vignettes, the film tells the story of another 16-year-old Sophia, this one sharing her name with the French seaside complex, Sophia Antipolis. Constructed in the 1970s as a Silicon Valley for the Côte d’Azur, today the town comprises dated laboratories and housing developments. Moments of alarm rupture its sun-drenched days. Girls make appointments for plastic surgery, security guards learn krav maga, a young widow attends a scientology meeting, and a body is found, incinerated. Watching the film is a disorienting experience akin to riffling through a series of troubling newspaper headlines. Just when it seems at its most fragmentary, the film reels in its narratives and ends as Sophia’s childhood friend comes to terms with her violent death and what has become of the town. The camerawork is fluid, tumbling from ordinary moments into dark crises.
Shading beautifully observed detail with darker tones of depression and neglect, British photographer Richard Billingham’s first feature, “Ray & Liz,” also proceeds in a non-chronological series of vignettes. The film is based on Billingham’s childhood memories of his parents, Ray and Liz, struggling with the socioeconomic and emotional effects of redundancy. Drawing from the acclaimed series of photographs Billingham took of his father in the early 1990s, the film offers a meticulous recreation of life in mid- and post-Thatcherite Birmingham. It eschews the preaching and sensationalism often found in social realist memoirs through nuanced characterisation. The social worker who arranges Billingham’s younger brother’s foster care is more pragmatic than moralistic. Liz’s reaction is understated, and the children are neither overly heroic nor weak. As with “Sophia Antipolis,” “Ray & Liz” portrays a world where children are exposed to very adult situations, and adults seem as ill-equipped to cope as anyone.
This also recalls Sotomayor’s “Too Late to Die Young,” where adults improvise communal life, and children become witnesses, supports and mirrors for them. In a particularly endearing scene, Sofía sits smoking on a rock with a child who wants to copy her. When Sofía tells the child that she’s too young to smoke, the girl retorts, “I’m only little on the outside.” The same could be said of Sofía—and in fact, the film itself, which operates through cumulative mood rather than grand narratives.
Adult and child roles also blur in Qiu Sheng’s first feature, “Suburban Birds.” An engineer surveys a site that may be under construction or demolition—this is just one of the film’s ambiguities concerning time. He finds a diary containing what appear to be prophesies of his own life. We switch between his narrative and one occurring on the same site but perhaps some years earlier. A group of children that might include the engineer’s younger self plays among the rubble. The taking of levels with surveying equipment can be read as a metaphor for the film’s attempts to get a measure of time and its parallel and perpendicular trajectories. The film eschews plot resolution in favour of playful, dreamlike feeling.
Like “Too Late to Die Young,” “Suburban Birds,” “Ray & Liz” and “Sophia Antipolis” are all “little on the outside” in the sense that their affective dimensions emerge from what appear to be fairly insubstantial plots. Appropriate for exploring ideas of youth and growth, this characteristic allows the films’ audiences interpretive space. As Locarno Film Festival itself stands at a juncture, with artistic director Carlo Chatrian leaving for the Berlin International Film Festival and speculation that some of his programmers may accompany him, the films’ images of generation and growth took on additional significance.