Holed up in a cold, poky apartment in the faded Spanish coastal town of Gijón, fashion student Leo and her single mother Maria are living way beyond their means, but don’t tell them that: They’d prefer to think of it as their means simply not having caught up with them. There’s a fine, even invisible, line between dignity and denial in “El Planeta,” a fine-grained portrait of everyday poverty amid the lingering wreckage of the global financial crisis. Yet this pithy, distinctive debut feature from artist-turned-filmmaker Amalia Ulman eschews kitchen-sink realism for a deadpan vein of black comedy somewhere on the very wide spectrum between Lena Dunham and early Pedro Almodóvar.
Among the more playfully offbeat entries in this year’s Sundance world cinema program, “El Planeta” is very much the segue into cinema you’d expect from the Argentinian-born, New York-based Ulman — whose celebrated oeuvre as a video- and performance-based artist has frequently addressed the themes of class, sexuality and self-image that gently resurface here. Several autobiographical elements are in the mix too, beginning with a risky and surprisingly effective casting stunt: Leo and Maria are played by Ulman and her own mother Ale, a first-time actor whose regal screen bearing and tart comic timing belie that inexperience.
The leads’ clear, complex rapport, alive with unspoken understanding and occasional exasperation, animates and enriches Ulman’s loose, vignette-based screenplay: How much this real-life mother and daughter’s relationship resembles and bleeds into that of their onscreen counterparts is for the viewer to speculate, but a sense of granular authenticity underpins even the film’s most absurd asides. Also palpable is Ulman’s intimate familiarity with the worn-down streetscapes and industrial fringes of Gijón, where she largely grew up. The town’s depopulated, off-season air and parade of vacant storefronts may bracket it with a number of equivalent European locations in the last decade, but there’s an affectionate specificity to the film’s sense of place — captured in the crisp, wintry compositions of Carlos Rigo Bellver’s grayscale camerawork.
Still, it’s clear enough why Leo, a sweet 20-something hipster with a determinedly eccentric sense of style, left Gijón several years ago to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins in London — only to be pulled back home by a combination of family drama and economic strife, just as she was making strides in her fledgling career as a celebrity stylist. (Brexit, too, casts a long, forbidding shadow in this scenario.) Her father has recently died, though her mother seems rather more shaken by the passing of the family cat; more nuanced details of the family’s misfortune trickle out, in offhand, conversational fashion, over the course of the film’s brief running time.
Maria has no job, while Leo is teased with glitzy international gigs (notably the chance to style Christina Aguilera for a New York photo shoot) that offer exposure but no expenses. The money has run out, the electricity has been cut off, yet such banal practicalities can’t stop Maria and Leo staving off the inevitable with retail therapy and daydreams of Instagram idylls. The film, meanwhile, cultivates a handmade shoestring aesthetic of its own: crude, gimmicky wipe effects and an atonal synthesized score work cleverly against the elegant minimalism of the imagery.
Its gaze honoring the imagined glamor of its characters even as it harshly undermines that illusion, “El Planeta” finds a strange kind of grandeur in the everyday and the unfamous. In her succession of designer furs and shades, the elder Ulman cuts a formidable, Gloria Swanson-esque figure — even when she’s getting apprehended for shoplifting at a down-at-heel supermarket. The director-star has a contrastingly passive, porous presence on screen, despite a wardrobe whose loud prints and colors are practically visible through the black-and-white lensing.
Several of the film’s narrative byways focus on Leo’s dating and sex life, a largely unhappy area, steered by the whims and falsehoods of exploitative men. (Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo shows up for an amusing cringe-comedy cameo as a middle-aged schlub who briefly courts her for sex work.) The suggestion of financial betrayal by Leo’s late father contributes to a generally glum picture of the patriarchy, though “El Planeta” doesn’t trade in flat gender politics, occasionally poking fun at its characters’ own idle superficialities. (“It’s feminism?” Leo shrugs when she dons a breast-baring shirt of her own design, to her mother’s bewilderment.) Maria’s last-resort plan, meanwhile, is to fall back on the most severe patriarchal authority of all: If she goes to prison, she reasons, at least she’ll have free room and board. It’s ultimately every woman for herself in Ulman’s beguilingly bleak comedy, though there’s sweetness amid the self-interest.