A daughter and father reunite after many years with unexpected consequences in Leticia Tonos’ “Love Child,” a small-scale, engagingly told debut whose charms outweigh its flaws. Set in a rural village in the Dominican Republic where nothing happens quickly, pic is a winsome mix of romance, magical realism, folksy humor and mild suspense, all of it serving to affectionately portray a community where Old World attitudes and superstitions are struggling to survive. The first film from the Dominican Republic to be helmed solely by a woman, pic is seeking Academy consideration for best foreign-language feature.
When her mother, Juana (Kalent Zaiz), is hit and killed by a runaway truck at their farmstead, 18-year-old Maria (Julietta Rodriguez), inspired by the romantic visions of a soap opera she’s seen, called “Love Child,” decides to seek out her own father, Joaquin (Victor Checo), a “good-for-nothing” living in a nearby town.
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Maria finds Joaquin living with handicapped Haitian assistant Polo Montifa (Gastner Legerme, superb) on his banana plantation, in a house supposedly haunted by the ghost of Joaquin’s second wife. (The characters and, importantly, the script believe in the possibility of ghosts.) Unsurprisingly, Joaquin is somewhat put out by Maria’s arrival, which only adds to his troubles, since neighbor Melido (Dionos Rufino) is challenging Joaquin for his land.
Underneath the slight storyline, the pic makes a serious point about the difficulties remote rural societies have in freeing themselves from the past’s iron grip. Machismo, as repped here by Joaquin, still mostly goes unchallenged. But because Tonos has based her film on observation of how things are rather than on propaganda about how they should be, auds seeking a feminist message may find the pic’s upbeat conclusion a little too forgiving of Joaquin’s dreadful sexism.
The casting adroitly mixes pros and newcomers, with some thesps seeming to be playing versions of themselves. Maria is the only female character with a major role (though the ghost of Joaquin’s second wife exercises a “Rebecca”-like power over things), and Julietta Rodriguez does fine, subdued work as a stoical woman used to submission who has learned to keep herself out of trouble.
But the standouts are the compellingly watchable Legerme and vet Checo as the grumpy, misanthropic and fundamentally insecure Joaquin, driving around in a wonderfully beaten-up yellow Chevrolet, cursing a world that’s moving too quickly for comfort.
Visually, the pic is unfailingly attractive, its palette dominated by the earth’s intense greens and the intense blue of the island sky. Miguel Hiraldo’s score is mournful solo guitar fare, somewhat overused, but repping a nice contrast to the sprightly bachata pieces that pop up from time to time.