Sibling rivalry is kept at a low, slow simmer in “Asteroid,” a fractiously intimate family drama in which the scabs of adult orphanhood are rather savagely picked. The sophomore feature from Mexican writer-director Marcelo Tobar, this story of a prickly prodigal daughter returning to a homestead now manned by her unambitious older brother is rather more muted than its celestial title might suggest – a study of characters in slow orbit, not on a blazing collision course. Thanks to flinty performances, particularly from Sophie Alexander-Katz, it’s a film of subtle but not insubstantial emotional rewards. After premiering at the Miami Film Festival, “Asteroid” should find further festival play, especially in Latin-American terrain.
Right down to key narrative specifics – the protagonist’s parents were killed in a car crash when she was still a child – “Asteroid” most obviously resembles a gender-flipped take on Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 mini-marvel “You Can Count on Me,” which brilliantly exposed the lingering hurt and mutual resentment behind a brother and sister’s initially cheerful reunion. That’s not a comparison that would flatter most films, and Tobar hasn’t quite the dramatist’s ear of a Lonergan: Tensions are sometimes underlined in magic marker, and the backstory reveal rather lumpenly handled. But there’s grace and acuity here too: Tobar has a keen understanding of the tenderly intuitive, often passive-aggressive ways in which siblings communicate even after time apart, and has evidently imparted that to his cast.
After the latest in what appears to be an ongoing series of personal meltdowns, outgrown wild-child type Cristina (Alexander-Katz) flees Mexico City for the sleepier surrounds of her childhood home – left by her parents to her morose brother Mauricio (Arturo Barba), a recovering junkie seeking an uneventful life with his bright, considerably younger g.f. Elda (Sofia Espinosa, excellent). Cristina represents a wiry obstacle to that plan, and not just because she and Elda take an instant, scarcely-veiled dislike to each other. It swiftly becomes clear that brother and sister aggravate each other’s physical, psychological and even sexual weaknesses to a destructive degree, though their mutual adoration is palpable.
The two leads negotiate the barbed personal boundaries of this impossible relationship with bruising exactitude. Gifted with an angular actorly intelligence that recalls a younger Madeleine Stowe, Alexander-Katz has the more nervy, expansive role and plays it as equal parts seductress, hellcat and victim. Audience sympathies won’t rest easily with either character: In a story largely about accepting responsibility for one’s own internal damage, they aren’t supposed to.
The family house, a roomy, dilapidated modernist beauty dressed to just the right state of decay by production designer Karen Torres, is itself a significant character in the drama. It’s also the most evocative visual element of the pic, carefully but dimly lensed by Alejandro Mejia. Adan Herrera’s flavorful score neatly works against the generally solemn tone at opportune intervals.