Things can get nasty quickly when kids are having fun, and that’s just what happens in “Childish Games,” a compact, compelling and creepy story about a man being haunted by a living child. Simmering, intense and intriguingly balanced between the natural and the supernatural before it spirals out of control in its final reel, pic shows helmer-scripter Antonio Chavarrias discarding his trademark gritty social commentary for a more aud-friendly, genre-based approach that nonetheless remains rooted in a credible, low-key portrait of the everyday. “Games” should see fest play, with arthouse screenings a possibility.
With: Juan Diego Botto, Barbara Lennie, Magica Perez, Nora Navas, Agata Roca, Marc Rodriguez, Adrian Bermudez, Pedro Muino, Cristina Azofra.
Schoolteacher Daniel (Juan Diego Botto) receives a visit from his childhood friend, the obviously disturbed Mario (Marc Rodriguez), who asks Daniel to come and meet his young daughter, Julia (Magica Perez). Daniel refuses, whereupon Mario returns home, climbs into the bathtub with Julia and commits bloody suicide, in a clammy and authentically disturbing scene.
Daniel’s partner, Laura (Barbara Lennie), is anxious to adopt a child, and Julia is now conveniently available. But Laura doesn’t see what the audience sees in increasingly charged, somewhat schematic flashbacks to an ill-fated summer vacation the young Daniel (Adrian Bermudez) spent with Mario (Pedro Muino) and his family, including Mario’s mother, Beatriz (Nora Navas), and sister, Clara (Cristina Azofra).
Back in the present, Laura gets her way and Julia is adopted. But before too long, the little girl is ominously muttering, “I know who you are” to an increasingly troubled Daniel, who starts seeing echoes of Clara’s behavior in Julia.
Apart from the bathroom scene, the pic’s horrors are entirely psychological as Daniel’s past comes back to haunt him with escalating intensity. Chavarrias’ gift for portraying the minutiae of unhappy relationships serves him well here: The chemistry between Daniel and Laura is just right, while one conversation between Laura and Julia’s former carer, Luisa (Agata Roca), reps a touchingly intimate discussion of the importance of children to women.
Bottos’ presence is generally a good sign of quality, and the slight air of superiority that always hangs over the thesp is nicely undermined by the psychological ordeal Daniel is plunged into. But even Botto is ill served in the end by the script, which hastens to wrap things up in the kind of sensationalist manner it has otherwise successfully avoided.
Lennie is fine, while Perez, with her slightly otherworldly visage, plays the traumatized Julia almost too well for comfort, suggesting that beyond Daniel’s haunted imagination, something paranormal might actually be going on.
The handheld scenes that have marked Chavarrias’ more docu-like past work are used more discreetly here. Traces of the helmer’s social criticism are still there in the subversive suggestion that the education of Spanish children is not necessarily in the hands of those best equipped for the job.