The premise of Paolo Genovese’s 2016 Italian hit “Perfetti sconosciuti” was simple: A group of longtime friends – three couples, and one seventh wheel – gather for an intimate dinner party, and in a sort of ill-advised parlor game, decide to spend the evening with their cell phones on the table, reading all their incoming texts and DMs out loud, and taking all their incoming calls on speaker. After all, among such close friends and happy couples, who has anything to hide?
Set amongst Mexico City’s upper-middle-class, Manolo Caro’s “Perfect Strangers” (Perfectos desconocidos) is one of several international remakes that have already bowed in South Korea, Greece, France and elsewhere. Released in Mexico late last year, Caro’s seriocomic adaptation alternates between a tense, well-acted chamber drama and an at times overly didactic parable, but its focus on our newfound willingness to collect all of our darkest secrets behind such an easily pierced veil – do we realize how precarious that tightrope we’re walking is? On some level, are we secretly hoping we might fall? – provides for plenty of squeamish entertainment.
With a score straight out of a horror film and a roving camera that tracks down hallways and in and out of windows like a stalking killer, Caro deftly builds tension early on, even though none of the actual action onscreen suggests anything particularly high-stakes is occurring. We’re introduced to our fortysomething cast as they get ready for a dinner party at the home of psychologist Eva (Cecilia Suarez) and her plastic surgeon husband, Antonio (Bruno Bichir), who are at odds over how to deal with their rebellious teenage daughter. There’s Flora (Mariana Trevino), a tipsy mother of two, and her alienated husband Ernesto (Miguel Rodarte). There’s serial entrepreneur Mario (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and his wife Ana (Ana Claudia Talancon), who is still a bit of an outsider to this tight-knit group. And arriving late to the party is Pepe (Franky Martin), a disheveled, newly unemployed teacher whose mysterious new girlfriend had to cancel at the last minute. To add an oblique touch of the supernatural, the party happens to coincide with a lunar eclipse.
Caro’s screenplay adaptation does well to sketch out the character dynamics early on without landing too hard on straight exposition, with plenty of gossip about unseen acquaintances and half-explained inside jokes that make the group believable as an intimate unit. Eventually a discussion of one such offscreen friend, whose marriage was destroyed by a cell phone snafu, prompts Eva to wonder if any one of them would survive opening up “the black box of our lives” to the whole group. Pepe – conveniently, the only one without a spouse present – eggs her on, and their night of radical transparency begins.
At first, the disclosures are low-key: A prank, an invitation to a beer-league soccer match which reveals that one of the men has been surreptitiously cut from the team, and a bit of a commotion when a call from Eva’s father lets slip that she’s scheduled a breast augmentation surgery. Indeed, the expected fireworks are slower in coming than one might expect, but the film is at its most incisive when it ponders the slippery ways that innocent online behavior is uncharitably recontextualized IRL.
The first major complication arrives when Ernesto corners Pepe and asks to temporarily switch phones. He’s expecting a text from a female admirer, and figures Pepe can simply pass it off as a come-on from his absent new girlfriend. The initial ruse works, but before the phones can be switched back, Pepe’s phone receives a revealing call of his own, and Ernesto has to spend the rest of the night improvising explanations for a situation that he himself doesn’t understand. This is the twist that finally starts to bring the group’s lingering tensions out into the open, but the contrivances surrounding it can’t help but ring a bit false.
By the time the big glass-smashing secrets start to unravel, Caro has spent so much time with the build-up that the payoff comes on a little too quickly, and the screamed recriminations prove far less interesting than the simmering intrigue of the first two acts. (A subplot exploring this ostensibly open-minded group’s closeted homophobia is well-intentioned, if a tad on the nose.) But the actors – particularly Caro’s previous “House of Flowers” collaborator Suarez – all do admirable work grounding their characters with both relatable dilemmas and prickly jagged edges, and Caro is never too eager to make these people likable that he sacrifices believability. In fact, one of the film’s cleverest turns comes when Antonio gets a call from his daughter, and stuns his wife by delivering some sensitive, note-perfect parenting. Perhaps in the rush to conceal all our dirty laundry, we end up hiding some secret virtues, too.