Little Miss Sunshine goes existential in this superb Chilean debut feature.
A road trip movie to nowhere (or at least to a barren desert plot in rural Chile), Dominga Sotomayor's Thursday Till Sunday follows a family of four as they make their way northward from Santiago to check out a parcel of land belonging to the harried father. This subtly affecting portrait of a family on the verge of a break up expertly mines its shifting viewpoints to comment on the gap between a child’s limited understanding and adult reality.
As good chunks of the film take place in the family car, Sotomayor sets up a front-seat/ back-seat dynamic: while the kids want to play with toys or undertake a round of 20 questions, the parents alternate between indulging their kids and hashing out their points of contention in what is clearly a doomed marriage.
While the younger of the two children, Manuel (Emiliano Freifeld), seems more or less unaware that anything is happening between his parents, the slightly older Lucía (Santi Ahumada) is at just the right (early teen-) age to sense that something decidedly unpleasant and possibly life-changing is unfolding in front of her without being able to fully comprehend the implications.
Thus Sotomayor’s most frequent – and most effective – strategy is to present events from Lucía’s viewpoint. Throughout the film, the director frequently operates on multiple planes, an in-focus foreground set off against a background presented in various degrees of legibility.
As the movie progresses, this foreground gets occupied more and more frequently by Lucía as she watches the shifting dynamic of her family play out in the muddied distance. Glimpsing altercations and intrigues through various scrims, she views the world through a car window darkly, with Sotomayor’s manipulation of focus suggesting the uncertainty of the girl’s understanding.
The film’s intrigues, although always relegated to the margins of the screen, reach their zenith two-thirds of the way through when the family runs rather suspiciously into an old male friend of the mother’s (with whom she obviously has some unfinished romantic business) and the whole party camps out for the night. After fireside songs, the kids retire to their tents where Lucía peers out in almost literal darkness at a romantic assignation.
Because the film’s approach hews towards the strictly observational and plays out as an accumulation of small details, we never know exactly what Lucía is thinking or how much she understands, but Sotomayor uses this darkness as a means to suggest an unbridged epistemological gap. With vision all but obliterated, only the grunts of copulation serve as a guide. The journey the family undertakes isn’t all breaking-point tension and partial glimpses of half-understood business.
The film contains such joyous moments as the two children gleefully joyriding atop the car, strapped down with a piece of rope. But this is a trip towards dissolution and when, in the final sequence, the landscape becomes more arid and unforgiving, it’s not hard to see the surroundings as mirroring the mounting dread of the young protagonist, her sense of dislocation literalised as she wanders terrified, momentarily lost, through the forbidding terrains of northern Chile and her own burgeoning consciousness.
Chile’s film output is gathering force. Will Dominga Sotomayor’s feature debut add to the momentum?
A challenging film, but one that rewards careful attention.
Sotomayor’s movie is more than the sum of its carefully accumulated details.