A teenage boy looking after a sex motel near Veracruz develops a crush on a woman neglected by her lover in Aaron Fernandez’s infectiously engrossing sophomore feature, “The Empty Hours.” Sparsely plotted yet brimming with unstated longing and superb character development, this subtle, handsomely shot drama features two standout performances that fully justify the weight on the actors’ shoulders. With the right buildup and a growing positive critical consensus, the pic could take advantage of increasing interest in Mexican product not just at fests but in limited arthouse play.
Uncle Gerry (Fermin Martinez) needs some medical issues addressed in the city, so he hands the keys of his rent-by-the-hour seaside motel to 17-year-old nephew Sebastian (Kristyan Ferrer). Told that “the most important thing in this business is discretion,” Sebastian isn’t quite prepared for the solitude — clients tend to avoid interaction, since their assignations are generally illicit — and he’s not happy filling in for the absent maid. He enjoys the sense of independence, but clearly would like to share with someone the stories he invents about customers.
One of these regulars is Miranda (Adriana Paz), who has been posted to the region to sell a new block of not-exactly-thrilling condos; the loneliness and tedium make her motel rendezvous all the more important. Her lover, Mario (Sergio Lasgon), is less invested, often arriving late or not showing at all. Sebastian’s noted her attractions, and the two make conversation while she waits for Mario. Notwithstanding their age difference — she’s probably about 10 years older — Miranda relaxes in Sebastian’s company, and the two develop a casual, easy bond of friendship whose platonic nature isn’t clear to a lonely teenage boy with hormones afire.
Everyone knows it takes far more skill to tell a simple story well than a complex one, and Fernandez (“Used Parts”) has a masterful handle on narrative, structure and character, skillfully blending them all in a tale with atmosphere to spare. Most impressively, he apportions equal weight and corporeality to Sebastian and Miranda, finding the camaraderie in their isolation while respecting their differing stages of development. The empty hours of the pleasingly poetic title are clearly delineated, yet their vacuity (as in “Used Parts”), and the characters’ frustrated boredom, are tolerably paced, with no useless action or badinage (though shaving off five or 10 minutes wouldn’t hurt). About the only element that doesn’t work is Jacinto (Eliseo Lara Martinez), a 12-year-old coconut seller near the motel whose role calls for either greater development or total elimination.
Without the warmth and ironic self-awareness that Paz brings to Miranda, the pic might have been a lesser vehicle, or at least a less absorbing one. In a truly breakthrough role, the actress enlivens the screen with palpable charm, her physical ease and ready geniality interrupted but not effaced by frustration and loneliness. Ferrer captures Sebastian’s teenage need for gratification, which is part libido, part post-adolescent emotional confusion.
Visuals are carefully framed and cleanly constructed, imbued with generous affection toward all while maintaining a certain wry distance. Fernandez and d.p. Javier Moron perfectly convey the anodyne emptiness of the pastel-colored Palma Real Motel, situated in tawdry isolation on the coastal road.