“Your body does not belong to you.” Few lines can be more terrifying to hear in a horror movie than this one, and the same goes double when it crops up in a coming-of-age drama. In “Princesita,” a short, deceptively sun-kissed nightmare that ultimately falls under both those categories, it sounds a stomach-knotting alarm to a 12-year-old girl whose sexual and emotional development has fallen under the cultish control of toxic masculinity. Chilean director Marialy Rivas throws a veritable banana split of florid formal techniques at the screen in her risky second feature, switching registers from woozy waking dream to extreme-cinema shock therapy; it’s attention-grabbing, but the film’s restless, busy style does little to deepen the sensationalistic abuse narrative at its center. The edgy imprimatur of producer Pablo Larraín will give it a leg up with international distributors, but “Princesita” frustratingly proves as evasive as it is incendiary.
Questions begin mounting up as early as “Princesita’s” dazzling, elliptical pre-credit sequence, a trippy assembly of sliding neon streaks and natural transmogrification imagery that sets up the film’s ongoing stylistic tension between the organic and the artificial. Things don’t get much less cryptic as we segue into the seemingly charmed, notionally real world of Tamara (Sara Caballero, impressive in her first feature), a bright girl on the cusp of adolescence, who will shortly be made to put away childish things with brutal finality. She’s one of a large, undefined number of young people living on an idyllic lakeside compound in southernmost Chile, overseen with firm but nonconformist authority by the charismatic, middle-aged Miguel (regular Larraín collaborator Marcelo Alonso). A cult, then, by any definition of the term — in which days seem to pass in a perennially sunlit haze of slow-motion gambolling, shot to the lens-flared hilt by ace d.p. Sergio Armstrong, another valuable Larraín loan.
“Together, we are happy,” Tamara informs us via her ecstatically whispered narration — a running device that not only lends proceedings a darkened hint of late Terrence Malick, but throws the film’s perspective disconcertingly, perhaps deliberately, off-kilter from the beginning. The Tamara of the voiceover seems older and more omniscient than the precocious but decidedly unworldly girl we see on screen, so from what vantage point is her story being told? Whatever the answer, it’s one that knows the illusory nature of that aforementioned happiness. Tamara’s world is swiftly redefined when Miguel decrees that she must begin attending school away from the compound — a privilege not granted to her fellow cult members, since Miguel claims to see her as his potential successor. (To what, exactly, we don’t know: There’s a suggestion of religious intent to the cult that isn’t articulated beyond some garish fluorescent crosses.) It is suggested that Miguel is Tamara’s father, though the specifics of how anyone or anything came to be in this suspended reality are kept vague in a film that defines itself as an adult fairy tale.
Even within this loosely disciplined story world, however, the question of why a controlling, obsessive alpha male like Miguel would risk the security of his otherworldly empire by exposing Tamara to conventional society remains a dramatic sticking point in Rivas and Camila Gutiérrez’s slender screenplay. From the first day of term, it’s clear to Tamara’s kindly teacher (María Gracia Omegna) that there’s something amiss about the girl’s home life; when the class begins sex education lessons, moreover, Tamara’s unexpected contributions to the discussion turn those early warning signs to blazing scarlet flags. For Miguel is counting on a hands-on role in his virginal young ward’s carnal enlightenment: It’s not Tamara he views as his successor after all, but the son he plans to seed in her.
There’s potential in this horrifying premise for an excoriating feminist allegory, yet even as “Princesita” sets about giving the patriarchy its due, the film undercuts its infernal power by skimping on human details. With all due credit to Caballero — who brings winning curiosity and maturity to a distinctly difficult role — Tamara never emerges as a complete character in her own right, even accounting for the possessive nature of her “family.” With her cool, abstract voiceover not necessarily a reflection of her surely turbulent inner life, she winds up a rather remote victim figure — the blank spaces in her psychology all the more disquieting as the film heads into perilous areas of sexual exploitation. Alonso’s increasingly malevolent leader is, unsurprisingly, more unknowable still: At just 78 minutes, “Princesita” may be admirably compact for a film trading in such tricky subject matter, but could afford a little more time spent coloring in its enigmatic character network.
Rivas’ keen directorial eye and ear for subtly compromised beauty at least brings consistent formal intrigue to this frustrating provocation. Even at its most pictorially blissed-out, there’s a bilious undercoat and queasy inconsistency of focus to Armstrong’s lensing that hints at greater corruption to come, while the low-lying electro buzz of Ignacio Pérez Marín and Domingo García-Huidobro’s score is in tune with our protagonist’s growing unease.