Doing for an impoverished Mexican family what “Let the Right One In” did for Swedish kids in puberty, Jorge Michel Grau’s “We Are What We Are” reps a skillfully mannered genre-bender that tackles the queasy subject of cannibalism. Focusing with superb aesthetics on a clan of flesh-eaters who, following their father’s demise, are forced to bring home the bacon themselves, pic begins by tracing the death’s effect on three sheltered siblings and then heads slowly but surely toward thriller territory before culminating in mucha sangre. A meaty diet of arthouses and cult followers awaits this Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection.
At first, it’s hard to tell where this portrait of a family rattled by the death of their patriarch (Humberto Yanez) and suffering amid Mexico City’s gloomy urban sprawl is headed. While auds have already seen dad keel over at the shopping mall, his wife Patricia (Carmen Beato), sons Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro, doing sharp work) and Julian (Alan Chavez), and commanding daughter Sabina (Paulina Gaitan of “Sin Nombre”) seem more bothered by the fact that he hasn’t made it home to deliver what seems to be an essential household item — a human body, preferably one that’s still alive and ready to be sacrificed in a gory ritual that takes place on the dining room table. After that, it’s chow time.
Julian and Alfredo are promptly assigned to take care of the hunt, but the former is too aggressive and the latter too wimpy to score the right bait, which does not make Mom happy. When a side plot develops about a dopey detective (Jorge Zarate) who’s on their trail, it becomes clear that debuting helmer Grau is actually telling two stories at once: The first a classic cop-vs.-killer chiller that builds its suspense in convincing ways, the second a dark look into family dynamics and how kids cope with responsibilities they’re not necessarily ready, or willing, to inherit.
Skillfully weaving the narrative together via Santiago Sanchez’s constantly tracking widescreen compositions and Enrico Chapela’s moody chamber music, Grau shows an assured directorial hand, keeping much of the worst violence off-camera before plunging into a convincing crop of prosthetics and corn syrup in the closing scenes. He also reveals a sly sense of humor that makes the tough material easy enough to stomach, with several moments scoring laughs during a Cannes screening.
Like the vampire rites in “Let the Right One In,” cannibalism is more strongly alluded to than actually witnessed onscreen. When the gruesome act finally does arrive, it comes as a disturbing reminder that “We Are What We Are” is essentially about members of a very troubled family who are what they eat.