An ambitious attempt to visualize an alienated adolescent’s imaginings, “Verbo” is as confused, excitable and sharp-witted as its heroine. Debut helmer Eduardo Chapero-Jackson follows up his series of well-received shorts with an intriguing, messy postmodern fable of teenage angst drawn from a ragbag of influences including sci-fi, rap, “Don Quixote” and “The Matrix,” with distinctive results that veer from the authentically haunting to the pretentiously overblown. Though its target audience seems to be exclusively bright 15-year-olds, this flawed but technically impressive pic merits fest play, and suggests Chapero-Jackson might be one to watch.
Isolated, soft-spoken and nervy gamine Sara (first-timer Alba Garcia) has difficulty communicating with her worried mother, Ines (Najwa Nimri), her arrogant schoolteacher (Manolo Solo), and most of her schoolmates. Drawn by striking, mysterious graffiti she sees on the walls of her neighborhood in the outskirts of Madrid, Sara decides to seek out the artist, Liriko (Miguel Angel Silvestre, a thesp who in Spain is indeed the object of many teen fantasies).
The line between reality and Sara’s imagination starts to blur. In a state of suicidal depression, she descends into a dark, shiny underworld where she is met by the fiery-eyed Liriko and his team of skateboard-riding, sword-wielding Goth warriors, such as Medussa (Veronica Echegui) and Prosak (Macarena Gomez). The team’s job is to give alienated teens like Sara the chance to rediscover their true selves, in the best fairy-tale tradition, by taking on three challenges, after which they can return to their lives with a renewed sense of purpose.
There are plenty of interesting ideas buzzing around here about the corporate colonization of the imagination, though these are sometimes ploddingly spelt out. Dialogue is mostly cliche, whether from Sara’s voiceovers (“I walk through these streets like a ghost”) or Liriko’s faux-philosophical advice to her, which sounds like a string of ad slogans.
Sara’s imaginative world is actually pretty impoverished. But it does feel true, and there’s enough general intelligence at work to suggest that Chapero-Jackson is satirizing the way kids’ minds are pumped these days full of empty marketing iconography to the exclusion of the free mental play teens like Sara so desperately need. The Spanish education system reps another of helmer’s targets.
Visually, the pic is as busy as a videogame. At one point, all the characters become anime-inspired cartoons, as Liriko bursts out into a song performed by Spanish rapper Nach; at another, Sara smoothly blends into an image in the book she is reading. The digitally created underworld is labyrinthine, hard and satisfyingly glossy, but the brightly lit, empty spaces of Sara’s suburb (partly shot in a Spanish ghost town full of new buildings for which, post-crisis, there are no buyers) are no less attention-grabbing.
Fragile-featured debutante Garcia, pretty much present throughout, is quietly compelling, but other thesps are little more than convincing ciphers. Editing and sound work are superb.