Writer-director Georgina Garcia Riedel’s first feature “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer” — no connection to Julia Alvarez’s popular novel “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” — is a dusty Arizona bordertown-set seriocomedy that slowly ingratiates with its warmth and humor. Very, very slowly. Indeed, while there are rewards to sticking with this tempest-in-teapot saga of sexual awakening across three family generations of Mexican-American women, its pacing is leisurely to the brink of stasis. Promising debut effort has minimal commercial potential in its current drawn-out form, but should travel well on the fest circuit.
The Garcia “girls” of all-too-sleepy Somerton, Ariz., consist of prim widowed grandmother Dona Genoveva (Lucy Gallardo); her divorced daughter Rosa (Elizabeth Pena); and latter’s teenaged daughter Blanca (America Ferrera, from “Real Women With Curves”). Seventy-year-old Dona shocks Rosa by buying a junky old car and announcing she intends to learn how to drive. Chunky gardener Don Pedro (Jorge Cervera Jr.) offers to be her instructor, igniting a slow-burn mutual attraction that must overcome the matron’s traditional notions of moral and age-apt propriety.
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Still on the rebound from her marriage to a loutish cheat, Rosa has put her own libido in the deep-freeze. But, whether she likes it or not, it’s thawing. Working at the butcher shop she inherited from her dad, Rosa finds her resistance weakening when it comes to advances from swaggering stud Victor (Steven Bauer), whose video store is across the street — and whose oft-deceived wife isn’t far away, either. Rosa’s sole employee is nontalkative, one-handed Jose Luis (Rick Najera), whose nice guy’s attentions fluster her.
Seventeen-year-old Blanca is flowering from adolescence to gorgeous womanhood. She spends the sweltering summer idly walking around with her friends as she both worries about becoming another pregnant-too-soon local girl, and waxes curious about her sexual pull toward boys. Not that there’s much of a pool available. Her attention perks up with the arrival of out-of-towner Sal (Leo Minaya), a cute young man who got a girl “in trouble” elsewhere.
Various carnal tensions percolate as Riedel’s screenplay and direction inch forward, lingering on domestic-life details beyond the requirement of insight or entertainment value. Her slowed-down rhythms do vividly capture the stuck-in-neutral atmosphere of a desert town, however.
There’s not a great deal of surprise in regard to the characters’ eventual fates. The spareness of Riedel’s stylistic approach — many silent sequences that might ordinarily be filled out with soundtrack music, sun-bleached widescreen images centered on clean horizontal lines — is striking but over-mannered for such a simple, sweet-tempered tale. Overt comic highlights like a brief telenovela parody or an amusingly contentious birthday dinner are few in the first half, while later breaks from pic’s rigorous aesthetic (i.e. a split-screen confessional sequence) just seem out of place.
Dialogue is too often pedestrian. Fortunately, essential character psychology is as sound as the understated perfs that anchor pic. Ferrera again portends a big future with her mix of charisma and everygirl awkwardness, while Pena expertly glides her role from emotional shutdown to oft-hilarious expressions of embarrassed erotic disarray. Support cast is equally sharp.
Pic has a deliberate, borderline-ascetic flavor that permeates all aspects of narrative, design and tech presentation. While it’s clearly the exact vision Riedel intended — and her vision does sport agreeable individuality — “Garcia Sisters” nearly sacrifices viewer patience for directorial purity.