A depressed young woman is dragged out of her isolation when she’s forced to help her alcoholic, dementia-afflicted grandmother in “She Doesn’t Want to Sleep Alone,” an affecting feature debut by Mexican shorts-helmer/casting director Natalia Beristain. Pic has a determinedly lo-fi digital look that matches its restrained emotional tenor, but feisty lead perfs from Mariana Gaja and Adriana Roel, and its accessible core conceit, could help this find sympathetic bed buddies on the fest circuit. Roel’s reputation should ensure specialty attention domestically at the very least.
Apparently well off enough not to need to work, Mexico City resident Amanda (Gaja) spends her days dabbling in photography but otherwise not doing much in particular. In the evenings, she has no-strings-attached sex with various lovers, the most recurrent being likable bartender Pablo (Leonardo Ortizgris), who’s patient with her because, per title, she can’t sleep solo unless she pops pills.
A phone call from a neighbor summons Amanda to the neglected, memento-stuffed apartment of her grandmother Dolores (Roel, star of stage, screen and telenovelas at home), a once-famous thesp who keeps herself in a permanent state of inebriation that exacerbates her Alzheimer’s-induced short-term memory loss.
Since Amanda’s dad/Dolores’ son (Arturo Beristain, the helmer’s real-life father) is away on a film shoot, it falls to Amanda to sort out her grandmother’s now-unignorable need for full-time care. She checks her into a nice-looking if functional residential facility for aged actors, which Dolores sometimes believes is a hotel (populated by “extras” not deserving of her company, at that) and gradually finds spending time with her grandma increasingly rewarding. Even in her most befuddled moments, the older woman shows a sharp grasp of Amanda’s character, and the film is at its best when limning the tender empathy that grows between them over the application of makeup or their shared enjoyment of the facility’s swimming pool.
Helmer’s screenplay was inspired, according to her director’s statement, by her personal experience with her own alcoholic grandmother, Dolores Beristain. But this well-structured, underplayed story never wallows in self-pity, choosing instead to sketch with a light touch how two generations of women deal with loneliness and addiction. Gaja, with her jolie-laid looks and permanent frown, makes a generous dance partner for the more flamboyant Roel, whose vanity and self-absorption only barely mask her growing terror over her failing health.
Beristain wisely chooses to show more than tell, dwelling on quiet, wordless moments that reveal much about her characters, such as the way they react to the sight of themselves naked in a changing-room mirror. Shade- and sun-dappled lensing by Dariela Ludlow plays off reflections and water well, while soundtrack choices enhance sense of wistful nostalgia.