Three stock characters, at least two acts too many, and one dysfunctional family
[For the next week we'll be looking at some of the movies playing at the Film Comment Selects series, featuring films hand selected by the editors of Film Comment magazine. For tickets and more information on the series, go here or visit FilmLinc.com.]
For a good long stretch of 3 I was mostly enjoying myself. There's something about its exploration of a broken family as individuals and a unit that seemed human and sad. There's a schlubby dad who's overbearing yet well-meaning, an aloof teenage daughter who's acting out because she can and no one will stop her, and an emotionally detached mother who's waiting for the death of a relative for some closure. It reminded me a little of a Todd Solondz movie with some compassion, or maybe the work of Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) and Tamara Jenkins (Savages).
But sometimes a movie just hangs out way too long and a good time becomes an awkward mess. That's what happens in 3, so in that regard, it really is like spending time with family.
Family dynamics can be ripe territory to explore, especially with broken relationships between broken people. The cracks and fissures within every family are where the frail, tender, human stuff can be found -- think exposed nerves and open wounds. The fact the film is called 3 already gives you a sense of a single unit that's been severed. Director Pablo Stoll gets to explore each of these characters in detail before any kind of meaningful attempt at reconciliation can take place. Though they're all basically character types in a dysfunctional family drama/comedy, there's some occasional vulnerability and human insight that, while familiar, seems true.
Rodolfo (Humberto De Vargas) is a dentist in an unhappy marriage. In our first introduction to his internal life, we watch him experience severe social anxiety disorder at his second wife's birthday party. Rather than stick around and stay for cake, he retreats to his room to cry and play a game of soccer on his PS3. His new wife's birthday happens to be on the same day as Ana's (Anaclara Ferreyra Palfy), his daughter from a previous marriage. That previous marriage ended in divorce, and this new one is going the same direction, but it prompts Rodolfo to insinuate himself back in Ana's life. There's a sense that Rodolfo may even try to rekindle the long-dead passion of his ex-wife Graciela (Sara Bessio) even though she wants nothing to do with him.
Watching the way Ana acts at school, it becomes pretty clear that Graciela hasn't been the best role model. She's busy all the time and barely has the energy or gumption to play parent, let alone clean. Ana cuts school to make out with her boyfriend and give him bored, distracted handjobs in between clammy make out sessions. As the apartment goes into varying states of disrepair, Graciela heads to a hospital to wait for the death of a relative. In the waiting room, she meets a man who looks a lot like her ex-husband and may be just what she needs to get her life back on track.
Since Ana is a piece played between her parents, her story takes a good amount of the film's focus. She's 16 and listless, and acting the way a teenager thinks adults act. As the film progresses, she begins to get attracted to older guys rather than guys her age -- men can offer her a lot more than just boys. Her attraction to men means an uneasy flirting to affect an air of sexual precociousness mixed with promiscuity. She's basically as lost as her peers and her parents, but no one seems all too concerned if they notice. Her parents each have their own goals -- her dad wants back into his old family, her mom wants to start a new life -- but neither really care about their daughter that much. Her boyfriend fumbles at sex and can't give her anything emotionally helpful, even for their age.
Both the apartment in disrepair and the dying relative are convenient metaphors for the state of this family. Rodolfo also has a thing for houseplants, so make that metaphor number three. These all get dealt with in ways you'd expect. Part of me wondered if there'd be a simple pattern to fix-ups and declines resulting in a kind of ending you'd put a bow on. In some ways 3 works toward a tidy finish suggesting new beginnings and possibilities. It's trite, sure, but it's competent, and the moments of observation (particularly involving the compassionate patheticness of Rodolfo and Graciela) can present some delights. The little personality traits that Ana shows from both parents are pretty amusing as well, and there's an idea of doubles and triples throughout the movie and how these are all in some way connected.
Then 3 keeps going. And then there's a Guided By Voices song that suggests another kind of closure that might be more true to life. But then 3 just keeps going again.
Part of me understands why Stoll might have drawn out the film the way he does -- he wants to untidy the convenient tidiness of the situations he's set up. Life isn't so neat, we don't always get what we want, and moments of sudden revelation and action aren't proceeded by the right 90s alt-rock songs. But at the same time, by drawing out the film, the structure of the movie wobbles and all of it seems off. There's a sense of absurd parallelism between the lives of the three characters, and yet it just doesn't seem absurd enough or tender enough or, mostly, true enough.
Maybe there's a better story in just one of these lives rather than the three together. With the trio taken as a whole, Stoll seems compelled to find connections and similarities between them all when it isn't necessary. If he just had Ana or Rodolfo or Graciela to focus on, the richer more unique patterns of their individual lives would have informed the film. On the margins of that individual life, the family would have helped point out other facets of the character that are not immediately apparent.
There is one good moment of sheer lunacy and fancy right before the very end. It might have worked had the scene come sooner or the finale hadn't come so late, or might have worked if the entire movie was executed with the same level of high absurdity. In its current place in 3, this moment hits not so hard -- a moment as inert as a houseplant, a decaying apartment, or a sick relative wasting away in a hospital bed.
[3 will screen at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center tonight.]