The English title suggests a desiccated, gray wasteland, but Sofía Quirós Ubeda’s “Land of Ashes” — surely one of the most entrancing first features of the year — teems with verdant, ungovernable life, made somehow more magically intense by the constant, hovering proximity of death. An expansion of the Argentine-Costa Rican filmmaker’s short film “Selva,” which played in Cannes Critics’ Week in 2016, the 80-minute film is an arrestingly beautiful coming-of-age story that unfolds like the dreamy incantation of a spell, or a bedside prayer murmured over clasped hands.
Selva (incandescent young star Smachleen Gutierrez) is 13 and lives in a tiny Costa Rican coastal town bounded on one side by a pulsatingly dense forest and on the other by the pale blue-gray breakers of the Caribbean. At home, she shares the duties of caring for her frail, elderly grandfather (a heartbreaking Humberto Samuels) with Elena (Hortensia Smith), a loving older woman who practically lives with them but whose substance abuse issues make her unreliable at times. Elena and Selva’s prickly relationship is brilliantly drawn in quick, evocative lines: Selva spits on Elena’s food before serving her, but their exchange of dirty-word insults at the dinner table afterwards ends in conspiratorial laughter — the recitation is a routine worn smooth with years of familiarity.
Later, they dance — the film contains many a joyous spontaneous dance scene — and at night they trade whispers sleeping three in a bed with Grandfather. Though Selva, who also has a more ordinary life attending school, crushing on a boy and hanging with friends, is often wordlessly accompanied by the spirit of her dead mother, it’s apparent Elena is the closest thing she has to a real mother figure. And then Elena disappears.
Grandfather, waning in health, is made vague and distressed by Elena’s absence, and Selva tries to maintain the illusion that she will return. But Ubeda’s atmospheric, sensorial filmmaking imparts a sense of tragedy — of endings that must happen so beginnings can occur — from the very start, with recurring images of dead snakes and dark-skinned hands holding lifeless blue crab shells.
The Spartan poetry of Ubeda’s dialogue is perfectly complemented by Francisca Saéz Agurto’s bruised, careful cinematography. Shallow-focus close-ups pin us to Gutierrez’ bright, open face, with her wide-spaced eyes flashing temper and irritation at times but more often brimming to overflow with concern for her beloved grandfather: The bond between the old man, with his papery skin, corded neck and sinewy arms, and the young girl, so bursting with vitality and promise, is deeply moving. Across every single one of their touching exchanges — he tells her a story of being caught in a whirlpool; she tells him how well his goats ate that day — is written their story of mutual devotion.
Ubeda’s slender storyline does hit most of the expected beats of the coming-of-age narrative, but in such a supple, unforced way that it never feels formulaic. Part of what makes “Land of Ashes” such an outstanding debut is, paradoxically, its restraint. Overt signposting is minimal — even Wissam Hojeij’s delicate score is sparingly used, and never employed to elicit emotions the story itself has not earned. Mostly, its faraway melodies are knitted deep into Christian Cosgrove’s enveloping, fertile sound design, which allows even the quietest of human moments to occur against a sonic backdrop alive with crickets, frogs and the patter of water droplets on leaves.
There is magic in this Costa Rican village, which Selva — her very name redolent of the jungle nearby — can access with the matter-of-fact mysticism of a child who has grown up surrounded by it. But Ubeda’s surpassingly strange and lovely first film is both real and a fable, and finds as much bewitching power in the natural as in the supernatural. A snake writes an “S” in the cooling night sand. A young hand carefully bathes the wasting flesh of an aged body. And a girl’s clear eyes darken imperceptibly as adulthood creeps in uninvited and settles around her like dusk.