In the sensitively observed period coming-of-ager “Red Princesses,” debuting feature helmer Laura Astorga Carrera draws on her own younger years as the daughter of Sandinista activists who fled Nicaragua for Costa Rica. While the story of a childhood interrupted due to the destabilizing pressures of living with parents secretly fighting the junta now practically reps a genre in recent Latin American cinema, “Princesses,” dramatically looser and more low-key than comparable titles such as Cao Hamburger’s “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” or Benjamin Avila’s “Clandestine Childhood,” should still receive royal treatment from festivals and Latino events.
With their parents part of the Sandinista underground, gazelle-like 11-year-old Claudia (Valeria Conejo) and her tubby younger sister Antonia (Aura Dinarte) are accustomed to uncertainty in their lives. Whether it’s waking up in a strange bed or being met at the school bus stop by an extended family member or friend with free time, the girls aren’t encouraged to ask questions or discuss what is happening. Indeed, they often display only a vague understanding of their parents’ clandestine activities and politics, such as when, in a moment of welcome humor, Antonia insists that Libya neighbors Cuba because she overheard their mother say Libya “stands beside” Cuba.
Even after the family makes a dangerous border crossing from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, dashing father Felipe (Fernando Bolanos) and beautiful mother Magda (Carol Sanabria) remain involved in the revolution; between cleaning and cooking, unhappy Magda forges documents while the distracted Felipe goes out on secret missions.
For her part, Claudia is intent on being a model communist pioneer. Her collection of pins from communist countries is her pride, and she joyfully performs Russian songs from the movement.
Just as the girls settle in at their new Costa Rican school and Claudia joins the choir, Magda commits ideological treason by absconding to Miami with a set of diplomatic passports and the movement’s money. Shunted between relatives, the infuriated Claudia tries to exert what little control over her life that she can.
Structuring the narrative through Claudia’s eyes, the screenplay by Carrera and Daniela Goggi excels in its creation of an unstable atmosphere where youthful innocence, exuberance and friendships are unable to thrive. Forced to rely on each other for support, the sisters constantly try to read the faces of the adults who surround them and eavesdrop on their conversations.
On the down side, however, the narrative keeps viewers as much in the dark as Claudia is about the bigger events influencing her life, and thus reduces the pic’s dramatic stakes.
Convincing young thesps Conejo and Dinarte are a real find. Although the grown-ups aren’t given much depth of character, the actors portraying them provide vivid screen presences.
The faded Technicolor tones of the lensing palette evoke the early 1980s. Well-chosen music is diegetic.