Sentimental and manipulative would be the inevitable criticism of Tótem if writer-director Lila Avilés second dramatic feature were a Hollywood studio-driven movie. Luckily, it isn’t, though the set-up has all the markings of tugging at your heartstring. Another measured, delicately observed, subtle look at childhood through the eyes of a young girl who discovers the harsh realities of the adult world, the film is similar in some regards to Ireland’s A Quiet Girl and Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman. Like the other two, this subdued film holds a sense of uncertainty that is also told with piercing emotion and without sensationalism.
The film’s young protagonist is seven-year-old Sol (Naima Senties), and the film is from her perspective. With her child’s-eye view, we see her staying at her grandfather’s home, where she is attempting to piece together the curious realities around her as the adults talk about things that go over her head. She knows she is there to celebrate her severely ill father’s (Mateo Garcia Glizon) birthday. Her and other family members are preparing for the party, and Tonatiuh has very little energy to get out of bed due to his terminal illness. She even talks to her mom about the pieces of conversation she overhears that surround her father’s health and even searches for questions for Suri on her smartphone.
Courtesy Janus Films
Stylistically and tonally, the film echoes The Chambermaid (2019), which was a minimalistic, naturalistic, and observed character study about a maid working at a lavish hotel in Mexico. The film focused more on character traits and details, where so much is coming at you in the smallest details. Totem is every bit in the same style, but it feels more seamless, and so many moments in the film feel pivotal with their tender moments.
While the film is about grief, it doesn’t feel grueling. It examines how grief and sickness impact everyone differently. The audience is given emotional insights into these interludes with various family members emotionally falling apart. For instance, we are introduced to Sol’s aunt, Nuria (Montserrat Maranon), who drinks an immense amount of wine and becomes very meticulous about Tonatiuh’s birthday cake, which is designed in the vein of a Vincent Van Gogh painting. It becomes a symbolic gesture that the cake must be exemplary because it could very well be her brother’s last one. Another sister named Ale (Marisol Gase) hires a spiritualist to rid the house of negative energy in a scene that holds a Fellini touch.
Meanwhile, Sol’s grandfather (Alberto) gives Tonatiuh a bonsai tree that he helped cultivate for the last seven years, which becomes even more heartbreaking once you sense that Tonatiuh is saddened that there is the possibility that the tree will outlive him. Sol’s mother, Lucia (Luza Larios), ends up arriving at the party, and they perform an amusing clown show for the party. There are many other poignant and heartbreaking scenes that give the film a humanism, yet it never feels trite, cloying, or manipulative due to how somber the approach is. There is something warm and inviting about the film, in spite of the adversity and grief. The film’s cinematography that is exquisitely shot by Deigo Tenorio offers warm color pallets that gives the film an earthly quality that is inviting and liberating to the naturalism of life. There is something affirmatory in its aesthetics and visuals language.
Courtesy Janus Films
The end result is a tightly drawn drama that maintains its focus and dramatic momentum throughout—and does it without any score. In the end, there’s really no other way to describe this film other than to just go with the flow of the film. The film is about insights into the curiosities of what it’s like to be young. Can you recall remembering the first time you learned about mortality? For many, it’s the loss of a pet, or a goldfish, or seeing a character in a cartoon or animated movie die. For others, it is actual people in our lives. The film shows the subtle shadings of attempting to understand these realities at a young age. It delivers it with many potent and empathetic turns, and it does it all with grace.
Tótem opens in limited release this Friday, January 26th. Including screenings this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre For tickets and showtimes please visit Tótem | Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (dia.org)