×

Film Review: ‘Days of the Whale’

Two young street artist/activists fall attractively in love against the backdrop of Medellín's gang subculture, in this promising debut.

Director:
Catalina Arroyave Restrepo
With:
Laura Tobón, David Escallón, Carlos Fonnegra, Christian Tappan, Julián Giraldo, Natalia Castaño, Margarita Restrepo. (Spanish dialogue)

1 hour 17 minutes

For all the peril that darkens its fringes, there’s an indomitable youthful exuberance that thrums through Catalina Arroyave Restrepo’s debut feature “Days of the Whale.” It makes the slight, and somewhat familiar, small-scale story, following a few days in the lives of a pair of Medellín-based graffiti artists, feel fresh enough as to be wet to the touch — a neon-colorful, if not hugely deep, manifesto of optimistic defiance spray-stenciled on a newly white-washed wall.

It’s this unmistakable energy and unconcealed filmmaking glee, rather than any particularly strong narrative instinct that marks Arroyave as one to watch. And as a calling card, “Days of the Whale” has already performed well, garnering the writer-director a special recognition in the CherryPicks Female First Feature category at SXSW, following stints at the Cartagena and Tallinn Black Nights film festivals. And in providing such a markedly lively contrast to her countrywoman Laura Mora’s grittier, dourer debut “Killing Jesus,” as well as to the epic, cinematic sprawl of the Cristina Gallego co-directed “Birds of Passage,” it suggests a nascent Colombian filmmaking resurgence that is not only diverse in terms of gender, but in style and approach.

Cris, played by casually stunning newcomer Laura Tobón, is a young street artist from a middle-class background, who lives with her father and his snippy new wife. Her mother, glimpsed in a couple of Skype calls, is a well-respected journalist who had to flee Medellín following some coverage that put her in the crosshairs of the local criminal element (it’s one of the film’s refreshing aspects that while crime and violence are omnipresent threats, Medellín’s most infamous erstwhile resident, Pablo Escobar, is never mentioned by name.)

Lightly tattooed and sporting scraggly pink-ombre highlights, Cris hangs out with fellow artist Simon (David Escallón). But what begins as a platonic relationship based on clandestine late-night painting sessions soon blossoms into more. Otherwise drama is in short supply in the first act, but the chemistry between the pair makes it a pleasure to watch, and as Cris and Simon nuzzle shyly closer, the film compels as a gentle portrait of the blissed-out uncertainty of new love — that heady period when you just can’t stop smiling at each other.

New notes are soon introduced, however. Cris and Simon are part of an artists’ collective run by Lucas (Carlos Fonnegra) who is coming to the malevolent attention of a local street gang running a protection racket. The slightly reckless Simon, explicitly from a less well-off background than the cautious Cris, used to run with these guys, and overestimates the level to which that gives him ongoing immunity. “We’re not in fifth grade anymore,” he is reminded by one of the gang’s enforcers, but when a threatening slogan appears on the wall opposite the collective’s HQ (colloquially translated to “snitches get stitches”), Simon is the first to advocate that they erase it. This relatively low-stakes dilemma forms the chief dramatic pivot point of the rest of the film’s brisk running time, as Cris wavers and then resolves to cover the wall in a large, psychedelic image of a whale — the film’s recurrent but slightly underdeveloped central metaphor.

Where the story threatens to falter, David Correa’s quick handheld camerawork urges it along, not so much painting a picture as sketching it out, in impatient, pressurized bursts of color and closeup, that rattle, fizz, and drip like spray paint from a can. And Victor Acevedo’s music, punctuated with bright, popping splashes of salsa, clubby remixes, and hard-edged Colombian hip-hop gives the film’s hip urban vibe its perfect sonic dimension.

If there is an issue with this otherwise confident, good-looking debut, it’s that the unmistakably upbeat filmmaking is slightly at odds with the precarious situation it is portraying. This is exacerbated by the foregrounding of Cris, insistently tugged into the foreground by Correa’s mobile camera, despite her arc being less inherently dramatic than that of many around her. There is perhaps an element of solipsism there, but if so, it’s a pretty accurate embodiment of the self-absorption of the young romantic. And that is really where the promising Arroyave’s interests seem to lie, not with any hard-hitting exposé of the seedy underbelly of cartel-blighted Medellín (and thank heavens, because we already have enough of those) but with the simple and universal expression of being young, creative, and, despite the dangers that may lurk around the next graffiti-tagged corner, irrepressibly alive.

Film Review: 'Days of the Whale'

Reviewed online, Berlin, March 20, 2019. (In SXSW, Cartagena, Tallinn Black Nights film festivals.) Running time: 77 MIN. (Original title: "Los Días de la Balena")

Production: (Colombia) A Raro Colectivo Audiovisual production, in co-production with Madlove, in association with Amplitud, Clap Studios, 235 Digital, La Poderosa Cine, Elephant Grip, with the support of Consejo Nacional del las Artes y la Cultura en Cinematografía, Fondo para el Desarollo Cinematográfico, Comisión Fílmica de Medellín. (Int'l sales: Raro, Medellín.) Producers: Jaime Guerrero Naudin, Natalia Agudelo, Nicolás Herreño. Executive Producers: Jaime Guerrero Naudin, Catalina Arroyave Restrepo, David Correa Franco, Andrés Arias, Mariana Gil, Camilo Escobar, Juan Pablo Castrillón.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. Camera (color, widescreen): David Correa. Editor: Juan Sebastián Quebrada. Music: Victor Acevedo.

With: Laura Tobón, David Escallón, Carlos Fonnegra, Christian Tappan, Julián Giraldo, Natalia Castaño, Margarita Restrepo. (Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Neve CampbellVariety's Power of Women NY

    Neve Campbell Seeking SAG-AFTRA Board Seat on Matthew Modine Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    Neve Campbell is running for a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Campbell is best known for starring as Sidney Prescott in the “Scream” movies and as LeAnn Harvey in “House of Cards.” Her credits include “Skyscraper,” “Wild Things” and “The Craft.” More Reviews Regional [...]

  • Themba-Bhebhe

    Durban FilmMart’s Themba Bhebhe on Diversity: ‘We Are At a Crossroads’

    DURBAN–A new thematic strand at this year’s Durban FilmMart, Engage @ DFM, offers a series of think tanks and in-depth discussions concerning diversity and de-colonial approaches to and models for filmmaking. To head up the new initiative, the DFM tapped guest curator Themba Bhebhe, who has led the Diversity & Inclusion initiative at the last two editions of [...]

  • Durban Film Festival 2019 / Copyright

    South African Creatives Grapple Over Copyright Amendment Bill

    DURBAN–The South African government is planning to update its four-decade-old copyright legislation, but what that means for filmmakers was up for debate during a contentious and often heated session at the Durban FilmMart this week. While the Copyright Amendment Bill awaits the signature of President Cyril Ramaphosa, industry stakeholders remain divided over how the proposed [...]

  • 'The Lion King' Ruling Box Office

    'The Lion King' Ruling Box Office With Dazzling Debut at $180 Million

    Disney’s “The Lion King” has jolted the North American box office back to life with an opening weekend in the $180 million range, estimates showed Saturday. “The Lion King” will record the second-best opening of 2019 — and could replace “Incredibles 2,” which launched last year with $182.7 million, as the ninth biggest North American [...]

  • 'Tomb Raider' Star Simon Yam in

    'Tomb Raider' Star Simon Yam in Hospital After Stabbing

    Hugely popular Hong Kong actor, Simon Yam was stabbed while on stage Saturday at a presentation in Zhongshan, Guangdong province in southern China. He is in hospital recovering. The incident happened at the opening of a branch of the Beijing Easyhome building materials company, where Yam was a guest. A man was seen rushing on [...]

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolosnaro attends the

    Bolsonaro Threatens Brazil’s Central Film Fund with Censorship or Closure

    In typical shoot-from-the-hip remarks, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has declared that Ancine, Brazil’s powerful state-backed federal film agency, should accept “filters”or face closure. “If it can’t have a filter, we’ll close Ancine, or privatize it,” Bolsonaro added, attacking Ancine, which plows some $300 million a year into Brazil’s film and TV industries, for supporting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content