Set in Medellin, Colombia, Days of the Whale is a story of youthful rebellion and the inevitable consequences of getting in with the wrong crowd against your parents’ advice. Following young graffiti artists Cristina (Laura Tobón) and Simón (David Escallón), who are at once naive, affectionate and hedonistic, the story shows how they are both remarkably gifted, expertly crafting forbidden graffiti murals on walls late at night as a middle finger to society. Problem is, society isn’t really listening, and they’re not completely convinced about what they’re doing, or to who, or why. They’re the real disaffected youth, rebels without a cause.
Director: Catalina Arroyave Restrepo
Release Date: March 10, 2019 (SXSW – World Premiere)
For all intents and purposes, Cristina is a seemingly innocuous girl. Coming from a Caucasian, middle-class family, she’s suffering somewhat from the recent breakup of her parents’ marriage. Ostensibly, she’s studying at college, but anytime we see her on campus she’s got her head down, eyes glued firmly to her phone — she’s not making a real effort to make friends and appears to be a bit of a misfit. It emerges that Cristina’s mother is a left-leaning journalist, absent from home but publishing fiery columns (‘Who controls Medellin?’) as a retaliation against the governing forces. In her absence, Cristina’s father (Christian Tappan) has recently taken up with a much younger woman, a little too close to Cristina’s age for comfort. In a dazzling repartee over dinner, Cristina is sharp-tongued: “I didn’t know you could read!” Suffice to say that she’s got a lot going on right now.
With Simón (it’s not clear how they met), she regularly hangs out at a local youth center for other borderline delinquents. When one is seen threatening another local youth when he refuses to pay up after a dealing, it’s clear that they’re dangerous people. Most are friendly enough, but it’s uncomfortable. When one of the members comes along with freshly printed pamphlets, we get the first idea of the socio-political climate: their ideologically optimistic proclamations that “art is transgressive” seem hopeful, but there is a sense that it needs much more force to be truly believed. All the while, Cristina’s face is downcast: perhaps it’s her knowing that, coming from a privileged middle-class background of the same city, she is one of the bourgeoisie that this underclass is trying to oppose. She’s visibly torn between her homeworld and the subversive world of her friends: the rebellious instinct is in their blood.
I enjoyed the soundtrack: the national Cumbia music augmented the realism of the feature and allowed me to become more caught up in the stories and settings. However, the plotline itself felt quite predictable, for want of a better word. While I understood that it was meant to be a short portrait of young people’s lives at a transitional time, it felt a little clunky, but it can be forgiven as it’s Catalina Arroyave’s first feature-length picture.
It turns out that Simón has recently left another gang, and the central crux of the film involves the rivals intimidating each other with graffiti messages until they take it too far. Simply put, it’s childish — but to them it seems like the most important thing in the world. Goading Cristina to help him gloss over a threat written in paint, Simón reveals himself to be too shallow, childish. He only appreciates and respects Cristina when she does as he likes, meaning that she should know better. Granted, she’s reluctant to head down the same path as her exiled mother, but between her rebellion at home, being torn between one city and another, and most of all her desire to impress Simón, she gives in — together, they paint a beautiful whale. Why? “They travel a bunch, take care of their babies…and they’re my mom’s favourite animal.” Ironically, we know from the events that have led up to her mother’s absence that she will not receive this ‘gift’ in the same way that Cristina thinks she will: it’s too subversive and will cause too much trouble to be considered a gift. Rather, it’s a call to battle, a war-cry from lost youth.
A little more happens, but it seems inconsequential, filling time before the climax. I was a little confused by a sudden helicopter shot and news broadcast of a beached whale in the streets of the city towards the end of the film. I’m all for symbolism — maybe it signifies a national foreboding — but it’s not really explained. Anyway, another crisis looms much closer at hand, as Cristina discovers the consequences of their actions and learns an important (conservative?) lesson about where she belongs in society.
On the whole, I could appreciate Days of the Whale. I thought the performances were well-maintained and naturalistic, and the different facets of the soundtrack, from salsa to hip-hop, helped keep the narrative buoyed even through darker passages. Perhaps a bit more could have been filled in about the political climate in Colombia — though maybe the film’s intention is more leaning towards a vignette of two lives rather than a political commentary. It was engaging to see that, under the surface, each life is complex and each individual’s story is worth telling. At only an hour and fifteen minutes, it felt too short — I almost wished it was longer to get the full ramifications of their actions and that the inciting material was more compelling. I felt as if I was waiting for a twist that never came. But aside from a somewhat reductionist social backdrop, the character engagement was good and the direction, sharp and promising.