Back in form after her underwhelming sophomore film “Mar,” Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor returns to an exploration of childhood and its intersection with a particular grown-up world, one where idealism is no protection from inner emotional turmoil. “Too Late to Die Young” springs from the director’s experiences growing up in the alternative ecological community of Peñalolén, yet she’s broadened the perspective by focusing on two teens on the brink of adult awareness, silently examining their confused sensations while nonjudgmentally witnessing the dysfunction around them. While the film is perhaps longer than necessary, and the adult characters could use some fleshing out, this is a satisfying sensorial work, unmistakably grounded in independent South American cinema, and should see a thriving festival life.
Though only her third feature, “Too Late to Die Young” features an opening shot that’s unmistakably Sotomayor: a boy asleep in an old car. Harking back to her debut “Thursday Through Sunday,” the image — its angle, lighting and construction — sets the precise tone of this summer moment and of the families present as the kids are brought to their last day of school for the year. Although close to Santiago, this community, high on a hill beyond the city, is very much off the grid, composed of artists, musicians and performers who’ve chosen to live and farm without benefit of electricity. The year is 1990, just after the fall of Chile’s dictatorship, and while politics are never mentioned, Sotomayor evokes a nation headed in an uncertain transition.
As usual with boys and girls, 16-year-old Sofia (Demian Hernández) has a more precocious maturity than her friend, Lucas (Antar Machado). She lives with her uncommunicative luthier father (Andrés Aliaga) but plans to move in with her musician mother in the city after New Year’s; until then she bides her time smoking and flirting with Ignacio (Matías Oviedo), one of the adults who visits the community from time to time. Though it’s her first acting experience, Hernández superbly captures the cautious looks and hesitant smiles of a young woman who thinks she’s ready to change her virginal state, learning how to use her natural beauty to powerful effect.
Sotomayor lays great store by looks and glances, implying entire emotional states with how and where her protagonist’s gaze lingers. This is equally true for Lucas, a guitarist who frustratingly watches the distance grow between himself and Sofia, yet is unable to win her back now that she’s moved on to another stage of experience. There’s a third character, not far below the level of Sofia and Lucas — the much younger Clara (Magdalena Tótoro), recently moved in with her parents and their big Bernese Mountain dog, Frida. Clara is more of a cypher, but given her age and the fact she’s a recent arrival, it’s not surprising her thoughts are difficult to penetrate. When Frida runs away and then seems to be returned, the film shifts into a deeper level of uncertainty, an acknowledgment that paradise is merely an illusion and childhood a temporary state of grace.
That shift is also ushered in by unsolved encroachments from the outside: a break-in, a water-pipe deliberately blocked, and then an enormous fire that consumes dry summer branches and undergrowth. The flames become a set piece of the film, allowing Sotomayor to envision a physical break with sensory significance. The importance she gives to tactility is noticeable in a number of scenes, from Sofia in a bathtub immersed in rising steam that dances with her cigarette smoke, to later when she bathes in a spring, enjoying a waterfall’s cascade while oblivious to the inferno nearby. Through it all, the pale summer light gives the visuals a washed-out feel, not quite of a time past yet not exactly of the present either.