A relationship that expires after it’s barely begun provides the fragile stuff of filmmaker Zach Weintraub’s second feature, “The International Sign for Choking.” Making strides forward from his promising debut, “Bummer Summer,” Weintraub works in characteristically quirky ways, such as situating his story in Buenos Aires but refusing to exploit the location for touristic purposes. This personal, decidedly noncommercial piece will struggle to win buyers’ hearts, but will win Weintraub more friends on his global fest tour.
While both “Bummer” and “Choking” are premised on relationship failure, the new pic is braver for sticking to its aesthetic guns as a chamber piece, shot with an HD camera that rarely allows anything other than its characters to enter the frame. It’s only through behavior and details that we learn that Josh (Weintraub), a photographer on assignment from an American publication, is in Buenos Aires. While the near-total absence of a world or greater physical context beyond the immediate action could have registered as severe or cruelly withholding, Weintraub mitigates against this possible shortcoming by taking a light, mellow approach.
Set up in shared housing, Josh gradually goes about his work trying to photograph interesting spots around Buenos Aires, but is distracted from the task by new roommate and fellow American Anna (indie writer-director-thesp Sophia Takal). At first they make only glancing contact and tend not to cross paths, but eventually they find an unexpected spark expressed less in words than by look and touch.
By rights, Josh shouldn’t necessarily be open to a new romance, since his real reason for being in Argentina is to track down former g.f. Martina. This, not the photo gig, is where his heart is; his priorities seem matched by those of Weintraub, who doesn’t provide any of the expected scenes of tango bars or the city’s grand Obelisk.
Things sort of just happen in “The International Sign for Choking,” whose course is determined more by chance occurrences than by a determined narrative line. Though never indulging in any explicit homage, Weintraub has made something of a hipster Ozu film out of his fleecy material, and as with Ozu, the theme of loss is paramount.
The unusual casting of two filmmakers as co-leads works remarkably well, since the key factor for both Weintraub (notably fluent in Spanish) and Takal is chemistry rather than acting prowess — a non-issue in a movie that’s so de-dramatized. The pair’s shifts from initial awkwardness to attraction to dissolution occur naturally and almost invisibly, the characters’ moment-to-moment interaction achieving a style quite distinct from that of mumblecore.
Cinematographer Nandan Rao frames the pic tightly in sun-drenched natural light, but allows for enough offscreen business to impede on the frame to avoid a claustrophobic feeling. Shots sometimes begin out of focus, then slowly sharpen — a recent strategy that contrasts with the faster rack-focus techniques of yore, but which lensers and directors should be careful with, lest they become merely a trendy affectation.