First-timer writer-director Ruben Imaz’s “Turtle Family” expressively captures the daze of unresolved grief, but the fascination with the hour-by-hour minutiae in the lives of four family members comes dangerously close to becoming too much of a good thing. Reminiscent of “Six Feet Under’s” dramatization of a clan’s emotional pulse, “Turtle” tracks 24 hours preceding the anniversary of a beloved mother’s death as experienced by a widower, his son, daughter and brother-in-law. Daring pic will field theatrical bids locally and abroad, especially if trimmed of unnecessary narrative fat.
Uncle Manuel (Manuel Plata) putters around his home, which he has shared with brother-in-law Jose (vet thesp Dagoberto Gama), son Omar (Jose Angel Bichir) and Ana (Luisa Pardo) ever since the death of the family matriarch. Imaz maintains a steady and consistent point of view on each character, sometimes pushing his camera into their faces, but observing them without judgment and with considerable patience.
Manuel has a slight mental defect that makes him a figure of some isolation and melancholy, as he’s forever concerned about tracking down one of his pet turtles. Omar and Ana ready to go to school, and once on their own, they wander into encounters that test their desires, sexual and otherwise. It’s here that “Turtle Family” appears to want to suggest something larger about the chasm between generations, and how youth act out in response to the loss of a parent, but it remains vaguely realized, particularly in the case of Omar.
The family’s enduring pain is seldom if ever expressed verbally, but through Jose’s struggles as a former union man now trying to get by selling shoes out of his car, the film finds an authentic expression of the ways surviving family members cope even when their dignity has been eroded. The eventual gathering at mom’s grave is needlessly delayed by a protracted final section that requires trimming; there’s nothing in Imaz’ conception that demands a running time of nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Requiring the utmost of his central quartet of actors, Imaz’s most impressive achievement is to draw out fine, subtle portrayals ranging from Gama’s troubled father trying to hold on as family breadwinner to newcomer Plata, whose own physical ailments are well integrated into an older man with a few surprises of his own. Bichir and Pardo keep the emotional temperature effectively low just when melodrama could kick in.
Vid lensing (in a good 35mm transfer) by Gerardo Barroso emphasizes faces and isolating domestic interiors in a desaturated color palette, while Leon Felipe Gonzalez performs an ace triple role as editor, sound recorder and sound designer. Galo Duran keeps his music score cues spare and succinct.