The fragile bonds of family and the precarious conditions faced by illegal workers in the U.S. provide the background for Chris Eska’s overly precious and studied feature debut, “August Evening.” Although guided by considerable empathy toward its small circle of kinfolk eking out a living in southern Texas, Eska’s tale of a woman’s unconditional support of her father-in-law is told with a faux-poetic sensibility that never really connects with his charac-ters’ lives. Picked up by new distrib Maya Releasing at the Los Angeles fest, where it won the narrative feature prize, this long, subtitled pic nonetheless faces an uphill climb to find auds.
Eska’s work reflects the current influence of East Asian on U.S. indies, but the complex visual concepts and sly narrative schemes of the Asian helmers Eska is clearly fond of tend to get translated here in rather superficial terms.
Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) has labored for some time as an undocumented worker at a chicken farm near the Texas town of Gonzales, and is living in a humble rental with quiet daughter-in-law Lupe (Veronica Loren). Lupe’s husband died in a car crash four years ago, and not far into the first act, Jaime’s wife Maria (Raquel Gavia) dies — a series of events Eska tells in a nice elliptical style.
For no clear reason — other than his age — Jaime loses his job soon after, upsetting Lupe’s long-held plans to move away. Instead, the two decide to head to the San Antonio area to live, unannounced, with Jaime’s other children — poorer yet arrogant Victor (Abel Becerra) and far better-off Alice (Sandra Rios). Jaime is shocked to learn Victor has children; his son has never brought them down to Gonzales to meet their grandfather.
The economic contrasts between Victor’s working-class existence and Alice’s suburban life — both of which Jaime and Lupe experience firsthand as they wear out their welcome at one and move to the other — come off as too pointed, a sense that’s frequently underlined in some of Eska’s more awkward dialogue-heavy scenes.
Least convincing of all is the film’s attempt to force Lupe to confront the terms of her life, with Victor and wife Andrea (Grisel Rodriguez) introducing her to their friend Luis (Walter Perez), a guy so impossibly nice and clean-cut that Lupe’s repeated rejections of his advances make her seem bull-headed, even self-destructive.
Underlying Lupe’s reluctance are her feelings toward her dead husband, but “August Evening” fails to convey these in such a way as to make Lupe’s conflict with Luis emotionally complex and stirring. In this case, Eska’s instinct for less-being-more undermines his movie.
Still, since Luis is clearly Lupe’s lifeline to any kind of future, it’s inevitable that she’ll have a choice to make between him and her father-in-law. The protracted wait before this decision is made makes the pic feel even longer than its 141-minute running time. Pic will be trimmed by 10 minutes for its domestic release.
Nonpro Castaneda and first-timer Loren sink deeper and deeper into their roles as the film progresses, though Loren falls back on some unfortunate mannerisms to suggest Lupe’s shyness. Becerra telegraphs that he’s playing the film’s closest thing to a heavy, while the friendly Perez makes it clear his Luis is the one for Lupe.
It’s difficult to recall another recent film lensed so constantly during the magic hour as this one, and though Yasu Tanida’s high-def cinematography is certainly beautiful, it also tends to monotonously hold to the same burnished tones of pre-sunset light. Score is poorly judged, including minimalist electronic music that’s out of place with the setting, and twangy, post-John Fahey guitar noodlings.