The hot-button topic of school bullying provides an attention-grabbing hook for “After Lucia,” the grimly persuasive sophomore feature from Mexican writer-helmer-producer Michel Franco (“Daniel and Ana”). Suggesting that teenage cruelty is no different in Mexico City than in any other major Western metropolis, pic depicts a distressing downward spiral for its pretty, charismatic protag after one drunken misstep. Rigorous arthouse styling and deliberate pace will limit peer approval from the youthful demographic depicted; instead, look for graduation to niche theatrical and global fest outings following pic’s berth in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
The titular Lucia, recently deceased, is the ghost that casts a shadow over the film’s two main characters: her daughter, Ale (Tessa Ia, “The Burning Plain”), and husband, Roberto (Hernan Mendoza), a chef. The grieving pair have left their life in Puerto Vallarta, making a fresh start in the capital, where Roberto plans to open a restaurant, and where their sparsely furnished apartment is an apt metaphor for the emptiness they feel.
Ale, short for Alejandra, has no trouble falling in with the popular kids at school, led by self-anointed queen bee Camilla (Tamara Yazbek Bernal) and handsome Jose (Gonzalo Vega Sisto). But when she heads off with the privileged gang for a weekend of teenage hedonism and has drunken bathroom sex with Jose, a cell-phone video of the incident soon goes viral. With Ale having earned the enmity of Camilla, who sees Jose as hers, and Manuel (Juan Carlos Barranco), who had his own designs on the new girl, her fate is sealed.
Ale’s selfless decision not to be a burden to her depressed father, and in fact to step into Mom’s shoes as his reliable support network, is an understandable adolescent error. And while her new school effectively polices the student population through random drugs testing of urine samples, there is no scientific evaluation for being a victim of bullying. The abuse escalates and turns troublingly criminal on a class trip to Veracruz.
In no particular rush to articulate what exactly his characters are thinking and feeling, or to provide easy mood cues through music (there is none), Franco aims to engage through careful withholding. For all but the most impatient auds, pic should sustain interest in how Ale, who initially resists her tormentors, gradually shuts down and submits to shocking degradation.
Pic benefits from Ia’s heartfelt lead performance and convincingly natural turns from the non-professionals who play her classmate tormentors and, per the press notes, are in fact the actress’ real-life friends. Absent musical accompaniment, a steady whir of Foley effects contributes a sense of unease; final sequence, which brings Roberto to the fore, is wholly gripping.