An attractive male swimming instructor is accused of inappropriately kissing a six-year-old boy in Carolina Jabor’s perceptive, handsomely made “Liquid Truth.” Comparisons are inevitable with Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” but the topic was hardly exhausted by that one film, and Jabor’s Brazilian take is less focused on the insidiously oppressive social atmosphere, though it hardly shies away from demonizing unproven accusations.
Taking inspiration from a play by Catalan author Josep Maria Miró and Ventura Pons’ 2015 film “Virus of Fear,” screenwriter Lucas Paraizo (“Gabriel and the Mountain”) brings heightened awareness to the pernicious conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia, and while some tightening is in order, “Liquid Truth” delivers a satisfying cinematic experience that resulted in several awards at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival, including the audience prize.
Something’s bothering little Alex (Luiz Felipe Mello), but like most six-year-olds, he’s not very verbal. More likely than not, he’s upset that his parents Davi (Marco Ricca) and Marisa (Stella Rabello) are divorced, plus his father’s overbearing insistence that Alex place first in competitions would make any child tearful. Normally, swim class with Rubens (Daniel de Oliveira, once again proving he’s far more than a toned body) is a haven, but Davi’s verbal disappointment that Alex came in second at a meet puts the boy on edge.
Easygoing and encouraging to all, Rubens is the kind of guy everyone likes, from fellow staff members to the kids themselves, and children of both sexes don’t hide their crushes. Nor does he exactly discourage them, and in locker talk with fellow instructor Heitor (Gustavo Falcão), Rubens makes remarks about the charms of some of the more sexualized prepubescent girls.
Those casual quips will come back to haunt him after Marisa tells Davi that Alex said Rubens kissed him on the mouth in the locker room. While Davi lodges a complaint with sports center director Ana (Malu Galli), Marisa goes on WhatsApp and Facebook, telling all the parents that Rubens was sexually inappropriate with her son. All hell breaks loose and Rubens is branded as a pedophile based solely on Alex’s vague say-so. Only Rubens’ girlfriend Sofia (Luisa Arraes) has no doubt about his innocence, but the fact that she’s just turned 19 and he’s 33 doesn’t help an impression forming that he’s sexually interested in kids. As tensions rise, parents become abusive, the police are called in, and Ana becomes ever more ineffectual in containing the crisis or supporting her employee.
Jabor (“Good Luck”) and Paraizo are at their best in playing with ambiguities, subtly adding small details, like Sofia’s age, to show how easy it is to jump to conclusions. Are his joking remarks to a clearly jealous Heitor, and the Instagram photos of underage girl students on his phone, really signs that he’s a pedophile, or is he being tarred for being passively inappropriate rather than actively predatory? Wisely, we never see what happened when Rubens went into the locker room with Alex — the instructor admits to comforting the tearful boy with a hug and encouraging kiss on the cheek — but the film leaves no doubt to his innocence, turning instead on the ways casual interactions with children can be misconstrued and then turned into a witch hunt.
The script, also awarded at the Rio fest, is especially good at noting the way homophobia informs ugly accusations: Davi presses Ana on whether Rubens is gay, and though she tells him that’s none of his business, she too begins to question whether Rubens, who has given no sign apart from encouraging support to gay student Edu (Matheus Costa), might not be entirely heterosexual. Elsewhere though, some trimming might help, as in the police station scene, where it feels like the same ground is being re-covered.
Otherwise, Jabor nicely builds tension, including a standout sequence when Marisa texts the other parents, and editing picks up speed as the screen goes wild with messages (the sound design is especially good, reaching a pounding intensity as the hysteria escalates). Performances are all aces, especially de Oliveira, winner of Rio’s best actor prize, who nails the character’s shift from easygoing confidence to bewildered devastation. Crisp, largely underpopulated visuals rarely contain more than two people in any shot and demonstrate a sensitivity to handsome framing.