An artfully handled debut feature, Matias Lucchesi’s “Natural Sciences” has picked up a clutch of festival awards since its Berlin premiere last year. This dramatic miniature about a young Argentine girl’s dogged search for her MIA father is the kind of quietly assured work that suggests a director with a definite future. Its brevity — and a narrative so slender it could have been handled in even shorter form — signals niche tube and download sales rather than theatrical exposure in most export markets.

Twelve-year-old Lila (Paula Hertzog) is a bit of a problem child at her boarding school in the mountains of Cordoba. The trouble is her single-minded fixation on finding the father whom her truckstop-owning mother angrily insists has never wanted anything to do with her. All she knows is that he once worked in the area installing TV antennas — just long enough to get Mom pregnant, then split.

After Lila makes repeated attempts to run away in order to find him — first on horseback, then stealing a car she doesn’t know how to drive — science teacher Jimena (Paola Barrientos) figures she’ll put an end to this obsession once and for all by helping the girl reach her goal. Jimena fibs to the school principal to explain their absence, then reluctantly drives herself and Lila to the last known site of the antenna-installation company. Alas, that business has long since moved on. A local man, however, points them in the direction of a former installer who “left his seed” everywhere he went.

This requires another, all-night drive, at the end of which they awkwardly introduce themselves to sickly loner Puma (Alvin Astorga). But even this isn’t the conclusion of their journey, which requires tracking down yet another stranger before Lila’s quest reaches its very low-key but satisfying resolution.

Nicely acted and sparely written, “Natural Sciences” borders on the excessively understated. For some, there won’t be quite enough incident or payoff even for the short running time. But Lucchesi’s confident handling, like his junior heroine’s determination, conveys a beguiling seriousness of purpose that is ultimately rewarding enough. That unpretentious but surefooted tenor is fully supported by design and tech contributions, most notably Sebastian Ferrero’s widescreen lensing.

Film Review: ‘Natural Sciences’

Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now), Jan. 8, 2015. (Also in 2014 Berlin, Seattle, San Sebastian, Los Angeles, Busan film festivals.) Running time: <strong>70 MIN.</strong> (Original title: "Ciencias naturals")

  • Production: (Argentina) A Salta la Liebre, Tarea Fina, Metaluna production. (International sales: Urban Distribution Intl., New York.) Producers, Matias Lucchesi, Juan Pablo Miller, Fabrice Lambot. Executive producers, Lucchesi, Miller.
  • Crew: Directed by Matias Lucchesi. Screenplay, Lucchesi, Gonzalo Salaya. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Sebastian Ferrero; editor, Delfina Castagnino; music, Nacho Conde; production designer, Juan Maristany; art director, Adrian Suarez; costume designer, Sol Munoz; sound, Lucas Fanchin; sound designer, Martin Litmanovich; casting, Vanesa Weinberg, Matias Herrera Cordoba.
  • With: Paula Hertzog, Paola Barrientos, Alvin Astorga, Arturo Goetz, Sergio Boris, Vanesa Weinberg.