Michael Rowe’s much-anticipated follow-up to his Camera d’Or winner, “Leap Year,” is an unexpectedly child-focused affair, conceived as the middle entry of a trilogy on solitude. “The Well” plunges into the loneliness of a child whose recently divorced mother moves in with a man of questionable temperament, and while Rowe finds little new to say, his sympathetic portrayal of a little girl’s insular world, visually keeping close to her perspective, has a rigorous appeal. Given its understated, largely uncontentious nature, the pic won’t travel as well as “Leap Year,” though smaller fests should be welcoming.
Immediately notable is the way Rowe and d.p. Diego Garcia frequently keep the camera at the level of Caro (Zaili Sofia Macias), forcing audiences to see her constricted world from her 8-year-old standpoint. She and her mother (Tania Arredondo, excellent) have just moved south from Mexico City to Pueblo, into the house of Mom’s new partner, Felipe (Arnoldo Picazzo). School doesn’t start for another month, so the large, lush garden out back becomes Caro’s sole, and solitary, playground. For Mom, the ability to let her daughter outside without worrying is a relief after the urban uncertainties of Mexico City, though she’s not happy about the insects Caro unabashedly befriends.
However, control always figures into adult-kid relationships, and the childless Felipe forcefully sets barriers, attempting to instill fear by warning Caro to stay away from a large covered well in an overgrown corner of the garden. Caro doesn’t buy the excuse that it’s inhabited by a large hairy monster, and the well quickly becomes the locus of her relationship with the garden and the man who lays claim (rather prematurely) to being her new stepfather. It’s a symbol of everything grown-ups maintain is dangerous but isn’t really, representing his attempts at domination and her desire to hide from the increasing presence he plays in her life.
Mom is a loving parent, solicitous of her daughter’s well-being (“I will always help you feel better”), but she’s also focused on building her role as Felipe’s partner, enjoying a new flirtatiousness whose very adult vibes alienate Caro. In addition, Felipe wants her to sever all ties to her ex (an entomologist, audiences learn later), notwithstanding his status as Caro’s father. Inevitably the little girl overhears things she shouldn’t, and with no outlet for her frustration, and no adult guidance to make it all understandable, she’s bound to act out.
Rowe is so good at capturing Caro’s world, with its uneasy division between freedom and constraint, that it’s frustrating that he occasionally resorts to standard “children of divorced parents” sentimentalities, like when Caro asks Mom, long after such a question would have been posed, why she and Daddy are no longer together. It also doesn’t jive that Mom would be moving them both to Felipe’s without really knowing the guy; Rowe may have that info in his head, preferring to focus on Caro’s p.o.v., but a little clarity here would make the mother a more understandable figure.
Visuals are conspicuously spare without feeling minimalist, cleverly reproducing Caro’s sense of outsized wonder while also capturing the way it can diminish and enhance an acute sensation of loneliness.