The well-worn notion that little people can have big stories to tell draws new breath in the accessible but uncompromising “Small Lives,” a rangy, intimate drama about an array of society’s victims living in a trailer park. Helmer Enrique Gabriel remains unflagging in his commitment to tackle uncomfortable themes, here commenting in timely fashion on current economic woes while skillfully creating a range of well-played, credible characters in believable situations. One of the few recent Spanish items unafraid to address the country’s multiple social problems, long-gestating “Lives” will likely make fest appearances.
Pic is set on the outskirts of Madrid, with skyscrapers forming a backdrop that’s tragically both near and out of reach. The first half-hour shows the life of high-flying fashion designer Barbara Helguera (Ana Fernandez) falling apart. Bankrupt, she meets living statue Andres (Roberto Enriquez) and gets drunk in a shopping mall with him; he offers her a bed in his trailer.
Having left a comfortable job, the philosophical Andres has chosen his simple, basic life. The park’s more interesting residents have not been so lucky. They include beauty worker Mari Angeles (Alicia Borrachero), struggling to bring up rebellious teen daughter Loredana (Yohana Cobo); failed dramatist Pradal (Emilio Gutierrez Caba), married to hack Celeste (Angela Molina), on whom he humiliatingly depends for money; supermarket worker Cristina (Laura Dominguez) and boyfriend Fede (Francisco Boira), continually looking to make a fast buck in projects that are destined to fail; and Piotr (Pyotr Zaychenko), a drunken, aging Russian crooner who once shared the stage with Yves Montand.
Pic’s point is that money, or rather the lack of it, has broken these people’s lives. But the narrative goes beyond this simple moral to explore in some detail who these people actually are, providing each of them with an emotional point of entry. Characters are developed mainly through screenwriter Lucia Lipschutz’s nicely modulated two-handed dialogues, which deftly reveal key points in sometimes complex backstories.
Registering most potently are Fede’s self-deception and Mari Angeles’ stoicism, which later breaks down in her raw, heartbreaking speech about poverty. While the performances are mostly strong, Pepo Oliva and Alicia Sanchez, as husband-and-wife traveling-fair workers, seem good-natured to the point of sentimentality.
More problematic is the fact that Fernandez struggles to earn sympathy; she’s never really able to shake off Barbara’s slightly patronizing air and the sense that the other characters exist only to teach this yuppie stereotype a life lesson. Presumably positioned so that comfortable cinemagoers will identify with her plight, and to broaden the social spectrum depicted, the film would lose little by eliminating either her or the complacent, metaphor-spouting Andres.
Visually, pic is efficient and nothing more. The score uses smoky jazz to good effect, also incorporating classical music through one powerful, silent summary sequence.