A mixed-bag Mexican drama that leavens its undeniable bleakness with moments of love and humour
Films about the hardscrabble side of life often make a point of denying their audiences hope. They invite us to care, only to hammer home that there was absolutely no point in our doing so; the authorial attitude taken is one of nihilism rather than compassion, and the effect on the audience more draining than enlightening.
This Mexican drama, a Palme d’Or contender last year, takes a slightly different tack: though its main storyline does indeed address deprivation, desperation and suffering, it makes sure to show enough evidence of real love between its characters that we know we are watching people and not mere emblems of wretchedness, and it provides enough instances of deadpan humour to remind us that life can be inappropriately funny even at its lowest points. So there’s a thread of hope stitched into the bleakness. But make no mistake – the bleakness is pretty bleak.
The eponymous Heli is a young husband and father whose family is catapulted into horror when his twelve-year-old sister, Estela, dizzily agrees to wed her seventeen-year-old boyfriend, Beto. Cue a headstrong plan on Beto’s part to make some fast running-away money, and some very unpleasant fallout indeed… The non-professional performances are for the most part somewhat listless, which drags back the film’s pace; the visuals tend towards the muddy; and some of the showier moments, like a prolonged sequence in which deadened teens play video games while torture takes place beside them, feel unprepossessingly film-schooly. Fainter-hearted viewers, meanwhile, will find the violence and the underage sexuality hard to take. But the better bits of this mixed bag are pretty good; and if the story it tells about a contemporary Mexico mired in corruption and violence is a familiar one, it’s still one of undeniable pertinence.
Limited release from Fri 23 May.