Tyro feature helmer Benjamin Avila revisits his fraught early years during Argentina’s military dictatorship in “Clandestine Childhood,” a fictionalized account that mixes truth and artistic license along with the perception of memory. Designed to highlight the uneasy coexistence between everyday childhood experiences and the intense pressures of living with parents secretly fighting the junta, the pic has strong moments, but is bogged down by a script that regurgitates standard-issue ideas without finding anything interesting to say. Still, fests will likely have a popular winner here, and arthouse play isn’t out of the question.
The appeal to auds here is clear, especially given Avila’s focus on burgeoning first love for 12-year-old Juan (Teo Gutierrez Moreno), a charismatic boy coping with an impossible situation. And the uncertainty of life during the junta under an assumed identity — coupled with the knowledge that the scenario is based on the helmer’s own story — can’t help but draw the viewer in. Yet the film feels overstretched, and the scenes of young love seem lifted from any number of early-teen romancers.
In 1979, exiled activists decided to return home to Argentina and work underground to bring down the regime. Juan and parents Daniel (Cesar Troncoso) and Cristina (Natalia Oreiro) enter the country separately under assumed identities, uniting with Daniel’s brother Beto (Ernesto Alterio, especially good) in a house in Buenos Aires. The adults set up a chocolate distribution outfit as a cover, creating a hiding place for Juan to flee with his infant sister in case of a siege. Meanwhile, he’s registered at school under the name Ernesto, and starts to live the normal life of any 12-year-old.
At school, Juan falls for his classmate’s sister Maria (Violeta Palukas). Avila uses a cliched slo-mo sequence to introduce the girl, shifting into an ultra precious mode that feels banal and out of place. Emphasizing Juan’s schizophrenic life — boisterous camping trips juxtaposed with loading bullet cartridges into boxes — is a terrific idea, but the writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.
Scenes set around the family are generally better, though Daniel’s character is only cursorily drawn. In dramatic terms, the best moment is the visit of grandma Amalia (Cristina Banegas), a tensely played sequence in which the older woman gives free reign to her fears. At moments of extreme emotion and violence, Avila switches to quickly edited illustrations that convey the cacophony of sensations better than could have been achieved with live action shots.
The largely handheld lensing is solid, though for unknown reasons many scenes are partly lit by an unappealing fluorescent green light that adds neither period flavor nor emotional resonance. Music can feel overly manipulative. The helmer’s earlier docu, “Grandchildren,” dealt with children like himself, left behind when their parents were murdered by the dictatorship.