Pic creates a warm drama of real emotions without milking tears.

Potted synopses can be misleading, especially in the case of “The Water at the End of the World,” since any summary would sound melodramatic. When one sister becomes terminally ill, the other promises to carry out her last wish and take her on a trip to Tierra del Fuego. Adding an alcoholic accordionist to the mix doesn’t bode well in the telling, yet helmer Paula Siero dodges almost all pitfalls and creates a warm drama of real emotions without milking tears. This surprisingly winning debut will need careful marketing but could prove popular on the fest circuit.

Sisters Laura (Guadalupe Docampo) and Adriana (Diana Lamas), both in their 20s, have a close relationship and live together in a small, slightly dingy apartment in Buenos Aires. When Adriana’s inoperable illness gets worse, she presses Laura to fulfill a previous agreement: They would go to Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina, for her to die. However, the sisters barely have any money, and Laura’s work at a pizzeria doesn’t bring in enough dough for the journey.

Adriana, frightened yet determined, won’t accept any delay, but Laura starts to despair when her boss, Mauro (Mario Alarcon), cuts her salary. The only person holding her together is Martin (Facundo Arana), a homeless accordion player with a drinking problem. Together, Laura and Martin scheme to find the cash so Adriana’s wish can come true.

Siero makes several well-considered artistic choices that allow her to transform what sounds like a standard sudser into a distinctive, heartfelt story. She’s stripped everything down to basics, keeping embellishments to a minimum, yet is careful not to make the sisters’ world too hermetic. Wisely, she steers clear of any whiff of noble suffering — Adriana is bullishly determined and places a harsh burden on Laura. The character is sympathetic not because she’s dying, but because she’s tough, flawed and real. Melancholy is kept at a distance, yet wistful smiles of sadness are effortlessly evoked in the viewer, with several terrific lines adding just the right touch of humor.

Perhaps it’s Siero’s background as an actress that makes her so skilled at handling her thesps, who evince a sisterly rapport that likely comes from long rehearsals and a natural bond. Docampo and Lamas are completely at ease with each other and their environment, thoroughly up to the challenges posed by frequent closeups and a mobile, observational camera that’s never far from their side.

The Water at the End of the World

Argentina

Production

A Magma Cine production. (International sales: Primer Plano Film Group, Buenos Aires.) Executive producers, Juan Pablo Gugliotta, Nathalia Videla Pena. Directed by Paula Siero. Screenplay, Siero, Nora Mazzitelli.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Daniel Ortega; editor, Leandro Aste; music, Chango Spasiuk; production designer, Julieta Dolinsky; costume designer, Lucia Sciannamea; sound, Martin Grignaschi, Federico Billordo; assistant director, Mariano Turek. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Bright Future), Jan. 31, 2011. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Guadalupe Docampo, Diana Lamas, Facundo Arana, Graciela Stefani, Mario Alarcon, Antonio Ugo, Mauricio Dayub.

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