A rural orphan’s journey in search of his godfather in the big city drives “Port Father,” Costa Rican writer-director Gustavo Fallas’ mostly downbeat yet agreeable first feature. Surefooted if modest narrative offers an unassuming slice of modern neorealism that won’t light any box office fires but should do well on the fest circuit, with limited offshore exposure in various formats possible. It won the Silver Zenith nod for best first fiction feature at Montreal.
Sixteen-year-old orphan Daniel (Jason Perez) leaves Chira Island, where he was raised, to find a godfather who may not remember him, or even be alive anymore — all he knows is that his late mother once worked at the man’s swank hotel in Puntarenas. Upon locating the now mostly shuttered, decrepit place, he’s told by surly current owner Chico (Gabriel Retes) that his godfather died some time ago. Nonetheless, Chico reluctantly allows Daniel to stay, getting room and board (but no pay) in exchange for general caretaker/night watchman duties. He also gets the boy trial employment on the waterfront, caulking docked ships alongside Elias (Leynar Gomez), a genial ne’er-do-well who takes him under wing.
Similarly kept/exploited by oft-drunk Chico is Soledad (Adriana Gome), a 17-year-old mother of a newborn whose official job is tending the owner’s senile, elderly father — though it doesn’t take long for Daniel to realize she’s being pimped out by her “benefactor,” too. The two youths manage to establish a mutually protective friendship despite Chico’s attempts to keep them apart. It eventually emerges that the man has plenty of secrets up his sleeve, including some unpleasant truths about the protagonist’s real parental roots.
Though naive Daniel’s odyssey is mostly disillusioning, there’s a stubborn hopefulness to both the film and appealing newcomer Perez’s performance that softens the blows that keep coming right up to the fadeout. Charismatic Gomez is a standout as the man Daniel might well become — a hustler hardened by experience, but still in possession of a kind heart. The script could have drummed up a few more plot complications, but “Port Father” has a low-key integrity that satisfies on its own terms. Production packaging is modest but pro.