Argentine writer-director Paula Hernández likes to explore what happens when characters from different worlds are thrown together. In her latest, “The Sleepwalkers,” which world-premiered in Toronto’s Platform competition before moving on to San Sebastian, the focus is on a discontented mother and her sullen, newly pubescent teen daughter, as they spend a New Year’s holiday in close quarters with three generations of extended family from the patriarchal side. With the sensual, hothouse environment reminiscent of the work of Hernández’s compatriot, Lucretia Martel (in particular “The Swamp” and “The Holy Girl”), this intense family drama should see extensive festival play.
Although his wife Luisa (the excellent Érica Rivas, bridezilla from “Wild Tales”) and 14-year-old daughter Ana (striking beautiful Ornella D’elía) would prefer something different, the domineering Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski), insists on returning to his upper middle-class family’s rural manse. Surrounded by forests and streams, it’s home to his imperious widowed mother Memé (Marilu Marini), who is also hosting his brother Sergio (Daniel Hendler) and sister Inés (Valeria Lois), along with their respective broods.
When Sergio’s eldest son, the mysterious and flirtatious Alejo (Rafael Federman), arrives unexpectedly, it sets the stage for Ana’s sexual awakening as well as the boiling over of marital tensions as family outsider Luisa finds herself put down and put upon one time too many.
Hernández is particularly good at capturing the fraught relationship between the protective Luisa and the moody adolescent. Ana cruelly rejects her mother’s attentions while staring raptly at her pinging cellphone, and then turns to her father for the permissions that Luisa has denied her. Meanwhile, as the cousins go tramping in the woods and swimming in the stream, Ana uses her phone to take photos of Alejo’s lithe naked body.
The film plays with literal and figurative meanings of sleepwalking. Somnambulism runs through the generations of Ana’s family, afflicting her as well. But it also refers to how the selfish Memé, Emilio and Sergio are willfully oblivious to things that they would rather not know about, while Inés is too busy and worn out from being a single mother with an infant to care.
In contrast, the ever-watchful Luisa, continually finds herself smoothing hurt feelings here, sorting out the baby there, and helping elderly housekeeper Hilda (Gloria Demassi) with the management of the house and the meals. Even though she’s running behind on her work as a translator for the family’s literary publishing business and would really like some time for herself in order to work on her own writing, her maternal instincts are on overdrive, as she senses some threat to Ana.
As the leads, the fierce Rivas totally convinces as the concerned mother, as does the stunning D’elía as the conflicted daughter. The supporting cast are good, too, as they etch the kind of privileged family with whom one might not want to spend too much time.
The intimate, handheld camerawork by Ivan Gierasinchuk compellingly charts the way mother and daughter have their space and their agency infringed upon. As his lens roams over the characters’ sweating bodies, it also makes palpable the humidity in the air and how the weather and alcohol bring out the worst during family arguments.