One man and a baby are quite enough for "Little Sky," Argentine director Victoria Menis' third feature. Simple, unsentimental story may find those very qualities make it a tad too whole-grain for easy arthouse export. But this is a fine festival item that deserves a chance with offshore arthouse auds.

One man and a baby are quite enough for “Little Sky,” Argentine director Victoria Menis’ third feature. Starting out looking like a “The Postman Rings Twice” redux, this quietly affecting drama instead becomes a much-less-expected kind of tragic love story — one buoyed by exquisite scenes of Leonardo Ramirez as an itinerant worker caring for the infant who’s better off with him than with either parent. Simple, unsentimental story may find those very qualities make it a tad too whole-grain for easy arthouse export. But this is a fine festival item that deserves a chance with offshore arthouse auds.

Orphaned, jobless and homeless, sinewy young drifter Felix (Ramirez) has plentiful reasons for looking so somber. Clearly no one’s given him a break in life. When train-hopping lands him in a dusty backwater where tipsy saloon habitue Roberto (Dario Levy) takes a shine to him — offering room and board in exchange for hard field labor — Felix accepts, for lack of better options.

Roberto’s crumbling fruit farm is no happy place. Its primary asset is wife Mercedes (Monica Lairana), a whiz with the tasty jams and preserves that keep them precariously afloat. But she evidently had little say in their arranged marriage. That she finds Roberto in general and marital “duties” in particular repulsive is plain right away to the new arrival.

Caught between a boorish dad’s parental haplessness and a well-meaning mother’s fits of disabling despair is the couple’s only child, Chango, still well shy of toddler-hood.

Initial setup suggests a sun-baked noir hinging on the usual infidelity and murder. But those expectations go unrealized. Instead, pic’s central relationship slowly emerges as the one between near-mute Felix and squalling little Chango, who immediately cottons to the stranger — and vice versa.

Clearly bewitched by notion of giving a child all the loving protection he never had, Felix grows attached in direct proportion to the neglect Chango increasingly suffers from his ill-matched parents.

When Mercedes finally runs away, Felix is left caring for two helpless babies: One small, another big, drunken and self-destructive. He soon decides he and Chango are better off hitting the road as well. But once they arrive in the big city, it’s clear Felix hasn’t planned very far ahead. Finances quickly run dry, leaving few options. Pic’s tragic fade is logical enough, though it could have been staged to less abrupt effect.

That minor letdown aside, “Little Sky” is well nigh perfectly realized in its modesty, nuance and surprisingly deep emotional engagement. Given sparse dialogue and a lazy atmosphere, it’s remarkable how fast the helmer/co-writer (with Alejandro Fernandez Murray) and editor (Alejandro Brodersohn) draw the viewer in. Grainy lensing by Marcelo Iaccarino is unprepossessing but apt.

Pic’s overwhelming strength, however, lies in its psychological acuity and ace performances. Lairana and Levy offer lived-in turns that flesh out the script’s minimalist strokes.

But the main attraction is the chemistry between Ramirez, who superbly delineates an unsophisticated yet poetically sympathetic character, and Rodrigo Silva — the sole child thesp cast as Chango. Menis must have allowed the duo hours of on- and off-camera bonding to end up with such beautifully unforced screen interactions. Indeed, “Little Sky” offers one of the most persuasively fond adult-infant relationships ever shot, let alone at such affecting length and central focus.

Little Sky

Argentina

Production

An INCAA presentation in association with Funds du Cinemapresent, Todo Cine and Sophie Dulac Prods. Produced by Hector Menis, Sophie Dulac, Michel Zana. Executive producer, Gabriela Schmid. Directed by Maria Victoria Menis. Screenplay, Menis, Alejandro Fernandez Murray.

Crew

Camera (color), Marcelo Iaccarino; editor, Alejandro Brodersohn; music, Diego Rolon, Luis Volcoff; production designer, Maria Eva Duarte; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Litmanovich, Martin Grinasci; assistant director, Natia Hernandez. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 13, 2004. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Felix - Leonardo Ramirez Roberto - Dario Levy Mercedes - Monica Lairana Chango - Rodrigo Silva
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