Understanding the potential consequences of careless words is an adult skill, one that the 12-year-old protagonist of “Rara” has yet to learn — but she’ll get some harsh instruction on the matter before this insightful, low-key Chilean drama is over. An accomplished first feature, director/co-scenarist Pepa San Martin’s finely observed tale finds that loose lips can still sink ships, as the pubescent heroine’s casual fibbing to divorced parents endangers the existence of the “two mommies” home she inhabits with her mother and a lesbian partner. There’s no melodramatic hand-wringing or even overt homophobia here, just a vivid depiction of how half-truths can incite the fearful imagination, which in turn can exploit the legal process and social biases to break up entire households.
At school, Sara (Julia Lubbert) is just starting to notice boys as something other than an annoyance, in tandem with best friend Pancha (Micaela Cristi). At home, she’s usually at war with an attention-needy younger sister (Emilia Ossandon as Cata) whose age-inappropriate tantrums suggest she might have some mild developmental issues. Easily annoyed (she refers to any chores she’s asked to do as “slave work”), Sara is a bit of a brat — which is to say, a perfectly normal kid. The only thing truly unusual about her is that she and Cata no longer live with their father Victor (Daniel Munoz), though they see him often. Instead, they reside with corporate-work-harried mom Paula (Mariana Loyola) and her veterinarian mate Lia (Augustina Munoz), who fortunately is good-humored and even-tempered enough not to mind that the bulk of parenting duties often fall to her.
Theirs is a happy, ordinary middle-class home, no more chaotic or discordant than any other with two willful young children. But the brood’s parental makeup is still a distinct novelty in coastal Vina del Mar. Well-meaning outsiders tend to assume the girls suffer for that distinction, when, indeed, the perception that there must be a problem is the problem. Thus when Sara exaggerates things a bit to cover her own immature behavior after growing irritated or fighting with mom, dad (who has remarried) begins worrying she and Cata are living in an “unhealthy environment.” Accusations and bad vibes snowball until there’s a full-blown custody battle on the horizon, something that Sara — for all her grousing — never wanted.
San Martin and her co-writer Alicia Scherson refrain from showy emotions, and eschew judging characters, who all have minor foibles. Even Victor, a potential villain here, is spared unsympathetic treatment: It’s clear he is simply, if misguidedly, acting in what he thinks are his daughters’ best interests.
Frequently light and humorous despite the heavy theme, with a running birthday-party subplot that keeps the narrative focus on a 12-year-old’s level of priorities, “Rara” packs a lot into less than 90 minutes without ever breaking a sweat. The performances are impressively naturalistic, not least the juvenile ones. Likewise, the overall assembly is clean and simple, but possessed of a certain elegant confidence.