A strong male lead and a keen sense for making the most out of a single location help make "Expecting" worth more than cursory a view.

A strong male lead and a keen sense for making the most out of a single location help make “Expecting” worth more than cursory a view. But despite its strengths, this scrappy teen abortion saga from Chilean writer-director Francisca Fuenzalida has too many hallmarks of a hesitant first feature, and the filmmaker’s inability to tamp down her characters’ too-abrupt emotional shifts turns what should be a slow-burner into an often overheated melodrama. Appeal seems mostly limited to fests and other low-key indie sanctuaries.

Pic starts strong with its only outdoor scene, as girlish protag Natalia (Maria de los Angeles Garcia) buys a cache of pills from a pernicious nurse (Claudia Hidalga) in a park. Abortion is still illegal in Chile, and Natalia plans to use a parentless night at home to furtively end her first-trimester pregnancy. Boyfriend Diego (Diego Ruiz) turns up to offer emotional support, and the two spend the rest of the night in the house, debating whether or not to go through with the procedure, playing out their class differences and questioning their future together, until a medical emergency throws everything into chaos.

“Expecting” is strongest when it emphasizes the quiet moments of creepingly indefinite terror while the two wait for the pills to work. The naive young lovers aren’t entirely clear about what they’re getting into, so any minor discomforts or delays in the pills’ effect can serve as tripwires of extreme anxiety — a tense time-killing card-game scene is quite well played, in that regard. Yet as deftly as the film navigates these internalized sequences, the louder conflicts are more clumsily orchestrated, with an excess of storming out of rooms, an ill-advised almost-sex scene and an overly spiky vacillation between tenderness and hostility that makes the central couple a bit hard to believe.

Garcia holds the camera well, but often gives too telenovela-ish a contour to her character’s rather rigid emotional arc. Ruiz is a minor revelation, however, effectively conveying a stewing sense of panic and helplessness submerged just below his teenaged approximation of stiff-upper-lip masculinity.

On a technical level, the film does well to work within its limited budget and location, avoiding claustrophobia or a sense of visual sameness despite taking place almost entirely inside a single dwelling.

Expecting

Chile

Production

A Banco Estado presentation of an Ondamax Films, Mirera Escondida, Lastarria 90 and Zona Cinema production. Executive producers, Gaston Chedufau, Jose Andres Calderon. Co-producers, Felipe Braun, Juan Carlos Salfate. Directed, written by Francisca Fuenzalida.

Crew

Camera (color), Pablo Letelier; editor, Rodrigo Saquel; music, Sebastian Jarpa; production designer, Pamela Chamorro; costume designer, Pamela Paredes; sound, Jarpa; associate producer, Alvaro Corvera; casting, Pilar Zderich, Jimena Rivano. Reviewed at AFI Film Festival (Breakthrough Cinema), Nov. 7, 2011. Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Maria de los Angeles Garcia, Diego Ruiz, Claudia Hidalga, Maite Neira.

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