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The world cinema festival circuit will never want for moody coming-of-age stories covering slow summers and restless desires: It takes either a harder touch or an extraordinarily delicate one to stand out amid the sultry languor of the genre. Uruguayan writer-director Lucia Garibaldi’s debut feature “The Sharks” somehow aims for both in its portrayal of a 14-year-old girl’s disturbing sexual awakening in a sleepy seaside town. At every turn, the film suggests luridly violent dangers in tranquil waters — both figuratively and, per its title, literally — whilst sketching Rosina, its introverted heroine, in light, fragile strokes. The result is intermittently striking before settling into an overly familiar drift: The film’s icy-humid atmospherics trouble the memory for longer than its remote protagonist and stagnant storytelling, just enough to pique interest in Garibaldi’s future work.

A classy acquisition for indie distributor Breaking Glass Pictures, “The Sharks” bows Stateside on VOD this week, following a lengthy festival run that began last year at Sundance, where Garibaldi scooped a directing prize. She certainly has style to slow-burn. Even in passages of narrative torpor, there’s a sunburned tactility to the camerawork by Germán Nocella Sedes; in frame after frame, every slice of late-afternoon light on a golden expanse of skin feels carefully and intimately placed. Fabrizio Rossi and Miguel Recalde’s strident, jittery electronic score, meanwhile, cuts right through the woozy ambient haze of this summertime snapshot, a reminder of fevered adolescent hormones swimming against the surrounding calm. Garibaldi feels crisply in command of her film’s clashing formal components throughout.

It’s in her screenplay, however, that all this texture and friction feels in shorter supply. Early flares of peril and daring are impassively observed but not investigated; we float teasingly over Rosina’s complex, inchoate psychosexual depths as if in a glass-bottomed boat. That’s not for any lack of cool, alert screen presence on the part of non-professional lead Romina Bentancur, who plays her with a spark of feral energy beneath a mask of teenage disaffection. We first encounter her running to the beach, escaping from a family fracas; it emerges that she has scratched her older sister’s eye in a fight. Diving into the ocean, she’s convinced she spots a shark’s fin cutting the water’s surface. Her father (Fabian Arenillas) is skeptical, at least until the tide brings in bloody evidence of a killer in the deep.

Lest this seem the setup for a very subdued arthouse spin on “Jaws,” the shark-panic subplot unfolds strictly as a sinister backdrop to a more oblique study of predatory instinct — awoken in Rosina herself following her first flush of carnal desire. Taking a summer job in her father’s home-maintenance company, she’s immediately attracted to Joselo (Federico Morosini), a gawky co-worker some years older than her. Their first sexual encounter is an embarrassing bust but one of the film’s most affecting scenes, carried in close-up by Bentancur’s conflicted but effortfully composed expression. Joselo drops the dalliance, which would be best for all concerned. Yet Rosina, to borrow a loaded phrase, will not be ignored, instead resolving to regain his attention through increasingly unhinged stalking methods.

This simultaneous framing of a vulnerable teenage ingenue as both shark and bait is an intriguing one, rescued from exploitative territory by the film’s calm, unblinking female gaze. But “The Sharks” shies from its most troubling lines of inquiry, in favor of stylish but studied ambiguity: Rosina’s aloofness to all, the audience included, comes to seem less interesting than unraveling exactly what’s inside her head. Circling around this unlocked protagonist, secondary crises of family and community are more accessible if less compelling, carrying the film on a warm breeze into more conventional summer-in-a-small-town terrain. Garibaldi depicts these surroundings with seductive saltwater authenticity, but it’s hard not to feel that “The Sharks” is looking away from the dorsal fin threat of its heroine: At any point in this melancholic coming-of-ager, a darker, more perverse one feels poised to attack.

‘The Sharks’: Film Review

Reviewed at London Film Festival, Oct. 4, 2019. (In Sundance, Karlovy Vary, San Sebastian, Busan festivals.) Running time: 80 MIN. (Original title: “Los tiburones”)

  • Production: (Uruguay-Argentina-Spain) A Montelona Cine production, in co-production with Trapecio Cine, Nephilim Prods. (Int'l sales: Visit Films, New York.) Producers: Isabel García, Pancho Magnou Arnábal. Executive producer: Arnábal. Co-producers: Melanie Schapiro, Luis Collar, Jorge Moreno.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Lucia Garibaldi. Camera: Germán Nocella Sedes. Editor: Sebastián Schjaer. Music: Fabrizio Rossi, Miguel Recalde.
  • With: Romina Bentancur, Federico Morosini, Fabián Arenillas, Antonella Aquistapache, Valeria Lois, Bruno Pereyra, Jorge Portillo. (Spanish dialogue)
  • Music By: