Coming-of-age stories rely almost exclusively on the charisma of the teen in tale’s forefront, a truism affirmed with appealing authority by newcomer Manuela Martelli’s perf in “B-Happy.” Though the litany of woes that envelop this determined young woman would give pause to Job, cumulative effect finds a sister doing it for herself, suggesting good cheer in the form of fest dates, limited arthouse biz and decent ancillary.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Martelli’s Kathy tells herself repeatedly, though the cards she’s dealt during an already treacherous passage in life provide plenty of opportunities to succumb to fear. While her Yugoslav-born petty thief father (Eduardo Barril) awaits release from a nearby prison, the 14-year-old struggles to get by on the family farm with morose mom Mercedes (Lorene Prieto) and nervous gay brother Danilo (Felipe Rios).
The small Chilean seaside town they’re near provides little opportunity, so Mercedes scrapes by as shop assistant and owner’s mistress at the local market while Danilo smokes dope with his pal and dreams of blowing town. Meanwhile, Kathy develops a hesitant friendship with smart transfer student Chemo (Ricardo Fernandez), who seems sincere but is well behind the curve of Kathy’s emotional development and poise.
Dad’s only out of jail a few days before confirming himself a recidivist, taking his daughter, who doesn’t seem to like him very much, along on an impromptu robbery before disappearing.
When her mother dies and Danilo finally leaves, Kathy is left to fend for herself. She must eventually fend off the shop owner’s advances, dabbling in prostitution as she discovers newfound longing for her father and escapes the clutches of a reform school.
Kathy endures all this and more with a mix of fortitude and pluck. She virtually directs her own deflowering at the hands of the malleable Chemo, later seeming far too regal for her hooking gig (details of which are spared). Only sheer luck provides an escape route from the school, though Katty is smart enough to act when hesitation would prove fatal.
Vet director Gonzalo Justiniano orchestrates the working-class odyssey with assurance and a complete lack of sensationalism. Pic summons echoes of Arturo Ripstein’s decade-old Mexican drama “The Beginning and the End,” which charts the slow, agonized disintegration of a once close-knit family, as well as the hard-hitting work of helmers Ken Loach and actor Peter Mullen.
Though not exactly proactive, Kathy is far from passive, and Martelli (who was 18 when pic was made) plays her with an astute ambivalence that makes the character a Rorschach test for auds’ hopes and fears. Barril stands out from a fine supporting cast as the blue-eyed rogue with no business being a father.
Production chores are handled skillfully down the line, though editing strategy of blackouts that often truncate scenes and Cuti Aste’s appropriately melancholy but overused musical motif become increasingly intrusive. Subtitles on print caught refer to protag as “Katty.”