Monica Pena's bristling experimental debut uncovers an unfamiliar side of the Miami youth scene.
The Florida sun has rarely seemed harsher than it does in “Ectotherms,” a bristling, defiantly lo-fi debut feature from multitasking filmmaker Monica Pena that offers a pithily poetic view of adolescent ennui in the less salubrious stretches of Miami. While that description may automatically conjure memories of Harmony Korine’s recent girls-gone-wild provocation “Spring Breakers,” it’s Korine’s earlier, more starkly experimental work that is a clear source of inspiration to Pena, a graduate of the UCLA film program who employs documentary and improvisatory techniques to tap into the youthful insecurities and aggressions of her four teen subjects. Very short and not at all sweet, this zero-budget effort was among the most striking world premieres at the Miami Film Festival: Distribution prospects are slim to none, but it deserves further exposure on the independent fest circuit.
“Ectotherms” may seem an aspirationally opaque title for a film of such modest means, though it makes an increasing degree of metaphorical sense as the film spends more time with its languid, taciturn quartet of Miami teenagers, blinking in the midday sunlight as if being physically recharged by its rays. Playing themselves, albeit with some story prompts from Pena, these kids represent a very different aspect of Miami’s youth scene to the rampant hedonism associated with spring-break culture: This is a portrait of everyday suburban alienation, lent flavorful distinction by the city’s unique cross-section of cultures and classes.
Pena’s perspective wanders casually between her subjects, but sides most with that of Chelsey (Chelsey Crowley), a high schooler whose default state of disaffection intensifies when her Cuban grandmother and chief caretaker (Martha Miranda) unceremoniously dies one weekday morning. Unwilling to face the reality of the situation, she opts instead to skip school with her brother Cassidy (Cassidy Fry), a talented but shiftless freestyle rapper, and his pals; over the course of the day, they traipse across town to catch a death-metal concert. Their objective, of course, is of less interest to Pena than their incidental banter and fleeting moments of observational clarity. It’s a familiar life-in-the-day structure, but the generational and socioeconomic context feels fresh, turning up moments of bleak beauty and occasional spacy humor . Incorporating East and West Coast hipster trends with immigrant influences and Middle American norms, Miami youth culture is evidently as much a hybrid creation as Pena’s own filmmaking.
Shifting focus and framing technique with appropriately jagged abandon, Jorge Rubiera’s fluid camerawork is appropriately inquisitive without seeming affected or intrusive; like the spare but ambient sound design, which appears to drift inside and outside of characters’ headspaces, it belies the film’s minimal resources. Sporadic intrusions on the soundtrack from metal band Pineslash are alarmingly, and then effectively, discordant.