There are many shades of loneliness, but the tatty gray isolation of a seaside town in the off-season provides a peculiarly perfect background hue for two bereaved late-teenage siblings in Argentinian director Mateo Bendesky’s elusively offbeat “Family Members.” Only Bendesky’s second feature, its contemplative remove — despite the humor inherent in many of its observations — is both a boon and a pitfall, providing plenty of room for unusually accurate insights into the strange workings of grief for those on the cusp of adulthood. But it also keeps us at a distance, and sells short some of its punchier ideas in favor of a precise, but slightly enervating portrait of two people struggling to regain some sense of connection while being trapped in about six different layers of limbo.
Following the death of their mother, the circumstances of which we learn about only gradually and elliptically, Gilda (Laila Maltz) and Lucas (Tomas Wicz) return to the coastal town where she lived to spread her remains in accordance with her wishes. But instead of ashes, all they have is her prosthetic hand, which bobs forlornly on the waves after they throw it in. Her house, which already feels haunted (neither sibling will use the bathroom where her body was found the whole time they’re there) is no longer theirs to occupy, according to the impatient landlord, but with a bus strike and a severe lack of money stranding them in the town, they have little choice but to squat there.
Seventeen-year-old Lucas, slight and pale, has developed an interest in bodybuilding and strikes up a friendship, which blossoms haltingly into a sexual relationship, with local Guido (Alejando Russek) whom he meets at the outdoor gym. Twenty-year-old Gilda is just out of rehab, claims to be dating some “great guy” whom Lucas suspects to be fictional, and is dabbling in any cobbled-together spiritual solution, from chakra stones to tarot cards, that catches her passing fancy. While obviously the more worldly, older sibling, Gilda is cleverly portrayed by Maltz as just as insecure, struggling and needful, underneath it all, as her younger brother.
It’s the relationship between the two that is perhaps the realest thing about “Family Members” — the mixture of affection, apathy and antagonism, as Gilda casually cuffs Lucas on his head or Lucas spits toothpaste at Gilda or the pair simply sit in loaded silence through long bus journeys, must be instantly relatable to anyone who has ever admired, detested, protected and/or resented a sibling.
DP Roman Kasseroller’s muted cinematography captures the liminal psychology of these drifting characters perfectly, washing the images of bright colors and suspending them instead in a cool half-light that is neither cheerful nor depressing. And though Gilda and Lucas’ directionlessness can feel at times listless, it is occasionally spotlit by touches of the surreal, which are seamlessly worked into the narrative by Ana Godoy’s crisp but lyrical editing. In fact some of those flourishes, subtly aided by Santiago Fumagalli’s lucid sound design — such as Lucas’ dreams in which a staticky clicking noise attracts him to a mysterious hole in the sand — suggest a whole different tangent for the film and a whole different horror-edged register it could work in were there just a little more red meat in the story’s diet.
But that is clearly not Bendesky’s ultimate aim as he is more interested in the delicate evocation of loss, and the dizzying disorientation and dissociation that grief can entail, especially when the mourner’s own identity is already in a state of flux. So while the film feels a little caught in the weeds between emphasizing the banality and the strangeness of Gilda and Lucas’ purgatorial situation — a fuzziness again deeply relatable to anyone who has lost a parent — it does excel at evoking their tenuous sibling connection, and how much it can mean to young, not-yet-fully formed people who have become, through circumstance and the gradual erosion of time and growing up, uncomfortably numb.