Presented largely from the perspective of two children, Mexican director Lila Avilés’ intimate and emotionally charged film “Tótem” immerses audiences in a raucous family reunion, where a handful of adult siblings have reunited to celebrate the birthday of their brother, a painter named Tonatiuh (Mateo Garcia). “Tona” is barely seen for most of the film, confined to a back room where he refuses visitors. Naturally, this baffles 7-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), who spends the day wandering the house alone, building a pillow fort in the living room, or collecting snails from the garden.
“Sometimes I feel like my dad doesn’t like me when he says he doesn’t want to see me,” Sol tells his father’s trusted nurse, Cruz (Teresita Sánchez, the only heiress of Avilés’ standout 2018 debut, “The Maid”). Your heart can’t help but break a little at this point, because by this point Avilés has already provided enough clues for us to sketch out the predicament in our heads.
Tona has cancer, and this party serves as the final, ostensibly joyful reunion of friends and loved ones for a man so frail he can barely get out of bed. Who among us hasn’t wondered what it could be like to attend our own funeral, feel the love and witness the grief that others might show for our passing? In a sense, the gathering depicted in “Tótem” offers Tona that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — a chance to experience the affectionate outpouring (not to mention the inevitable laughter, tears, and bickering between siblings) usually reserved for her wake. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on mortality and how we struggle to understand and accept it.
Rich in detail while intensely specific to the large bourgeois family it observes, Avilés’ realistic and lived-in second feature alternates between around half a dozen characters, inviting the audience to choose their own points of identification in all. There’s Sol, of course, who can’t get a direct answer from the adults about Tona’s situation – at one point they start speaking in code, breaking up words like “chemotherapy” and “morphine” so that the children do not understand his decision to stop treatment. And so Sol has to resort to asking him deep questions over the phone, like if the world is going to end and if his father will survive.
His mother, Lucia (Lazua Larios), is a free-spirited actress who disappears for much of the film after leaving a humanly endearing first impression in the opening scene: waiting for Sol to do her business in a bathroom. public, Lucia knocks her down. panties and relieves herself in the sink. It’s a surprisingly spontaneous act that instantly conveys the unfiltered, hyper-familiar dynamic that we can also expect from his in-laws.
After arriving home, Lucia leaves Sol under the loose supervision of her aunts. Tasked with decorating the cake, Tona’s stressed sister, Nuria (Montserrat Marañon), gets increasingly drunk as her preschool daughter Ester (Saori Gurza) perches on the fridge. Meanwhile, distracted older sister Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) is coloring her hair in the kitchen. She’s hired some sort of wizarding healer to rid the house of evil spirits, freely spending money on treatment that should really be paid for on Cruz – who quietly watches the nonsense, knowing she owes two weeks’ pay for s take care of Tona.
The film may seem messy and slightly disorganized on first viewing, but it’s really a reflection of the family, constantly weaving through each other’s spaces. Virtually the only man in the crowded house’s common areas, Sol’s surly psychologist grandfather Roberto (Alberto Amador) – likely a cancer survivor himself, given the battery-powered electrolarynx needed for him to talk – try to put the finishing touches on a bonsai tree. At one point, Sol steals the robot voice device, laughing at how it sounds, oblivious as children so often are to the dark code of behavior expected of her that day.
These actions may seem random and somewhat unmotivated, but they ultimately turn out to be part of a much larger design – the way all family members position themselves for what amounts to a festive goodbye. Though Avilés avoids overt sentimentality, it’s hard not to choke when the characters we’ve been listening to for the past hour finally get a chance to show Tona how they feel.
What is the “Tótem” of the title of the film? Is this the bonsai that Roberto gives Tona? Or maybe the house, as a container for this family? Or maybe the family itself is a totem something bigger, like the culture he came from, or all of humanity? Avilés works in a generous and open style, entrusting his characters to non-professional actors and treating their creations like impulsive, sometimes contradictory souls, with lives that go on when the cameras aren’t rolling – three-dimensional beings who are just us. partially revealed, each hides unknowable mysteries of their own (consider the case of the Tona paintings, which Cruz is smuggling behind the family’s backs).
The day under review will transform all of these characters, but no more so than Sol. A few minutes into the film, immediately after the colorful restroom scene, Sol asks her mother if they can try wishing together. At this moment, the girl takes a deep breath, closes her eyes and asks the sky “may daddy not die”. But cancer is a horrible disease, and Avilés does not pretend otherwise. Tona struggles to make herself presentable to her guests, soiling her pants at one point. Adults may not tell Sol the whole truth, but at the end of the day, she had time to understand. When Tona’s cake arrives and he refuses to make a wish, she knows what it means.