At once overly buttoned-down and thoroughly improbable, Gracia Querejeta’s “15 Years and One Day” plays like a standard telenovela with all the juiciest parts excised. Never allowing its overstocked cast of characters much breathing room, the film lurches from Afterschool Special-style moralism to perfunctory murder mystery to sappy melodrama with all the tonal consistency of a rusted tuba, stranding several excellent actors in the process. Winner of several prizes at the Malaga Film Festival, and recently announced as Spain’s foreign-language Oscar submission, “15 Years” could perhaps drum up moderate interest in some Spanish-speaking territories, but it won’t get much further than a qualifying run Stateside.
Newcomer Aron Piper more or less stars as Jon, a disgruntled 14-year-old who has been expelled from school after a series of rather mild transgressions (he pulled a prank on a teacher and called the lunchlady “a cow”). The standout in a strong cast, Piper has a naturalistic grasp of the more undemonstrative aspects of teenage rebellion, and in an early argument with his mother, Margo (the always welcome Maribel Verdu), Jon seems a decent kid working through typical adolescent ennui and still grieving the recent death of his father. Not three minutes later, however, he kills the next-door neighbor’s dog with rat poison and expresses no remorse when he’s caught.
The film never acknowledges that such behavior seems to suggest a budding Jeffrey Dahmer more than a Holden Caulfield, presenting it instead as simply the last straw for Margo, who sends Jon off to live with his estranged, ex-military grandfather, Max (Tito Valverde), in a small town on the Alicante coast. Horrified by his grandfather’s hostility toward television and air conditioning, Jon seems to have found the right place for some scared-straight tough love.
Jon may have the most screentime, but it’s hard to call him the film’s protagonist, as his arrival in the new town sees him adopt the role of passive observer for a whole procession of characters to dutifully deliver their backstories in long monologues. The sweet girl (Sofia Mohamed) from the Internet cafe relates why she dropped out of school; her thuggish South American boyfriend (Pau Poch) claims he was once tagged to become the “Ecuadorian Maradona” before a hernia sidelined his soccer career; Jon’s gay tutor (Boris Cucalon) describes his bullying; and abuelo Max gets to narrate a haunted-soldier story from his tour of duty in the Bosnian War. Very few of these plot strands connect or develop in any meaningful way; nor do they elicit much of a response from Jon.
With the narrative gradually running out of steam, the script abruptly switches gears around the hour mark. A mysterious offscreen brawl leaves one character dead and Jon in a coma — making him the perfect audience for Margo’s spotlight monologue — and Max gets to spend a few reels playing amateur detective. The denouement, when it comes, is greeted with a sort of noncommittal shrug from all around, and Querejeta attempts to craft a happy ending by essentially leaving all her key characters right back where they started.
Despite its emotional stiltedness, the film at least ambles forward at a pleasantly leisurely pace, and d.p. Juan Carlos Gomez frames the gorgeous seaside locations with a sensitive eye. The cast all do due diligence with mostly shallow roles, though the intriguing Belen Lopez goes particularly underserved by her part as a no-nonsense policewoman who catches Max’s eye (she doesn’t even get a full monologue for her backstory). An intrusively schmaltzy score and Querejeta’s insistence on ending at least half a dozen scenes with fades-to-white lends the pic a Hallmark-card sort of beigeness throughout.