It takes a village to raise a child, goes the old saying, and at least in the figurative sense, Spanish director Pilar Palomero’s tremendous sophomore feature “La Maternal” shows that to be true. Before that can happen, however, pregnant 14-year-old Carla needs to get out of the village and into the city — specifically, to a Barcelona shelter for teenage mothers where the troubled adolescent finds the community and empathy her life has been missing all along. Female solidarity drives Palomero’s follow-up to the celebrated, similarly sisterhood-themed “Schoolgirls,” but without any glib girl-power sloganeering: A tough, unsweetened work of social realism built around an astonishing screen debut by Carla Quílez, “La Maternal” sentimentalizes not one detail of juvenile motherhood, truly earning its flashes of hope and grace.
Though it racked up festival mileage at the Berlinale and beyond, “Schoolgirls” never made quite the impression internationally that it did in Spain — where it topped last year’s Goya winners over bigger-name competition. Premiering closer to home in the main competition at San Sebastian, the more muscular, ambitious “La Maternal” deserves to be a bigger deal still, analogous to such recent works as Sarah Gavron’s “Rocks” and Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”: There’s little here that wouldn’t translate to global arthouse audiences, though Palomero’s script retains a youthful, flavorful Spanish idiom that smacks of productive workshopping with a predominantly non-professional cast.
Though this is her first feature credit, Quílez isn’t among the film’s amateurs, and brings whirling physicality and livewire emotional intensity to a demanding lead role. As Carla, she’s often required to be at once piercingly vulnerable and violently prickly, streetsmart but not especially precocious, as the film dares to make its young, frequently victimized protagonist not especially likable. We encounter her at her most brattish, in consort with her faithful best friend Efrain (Jordan Ángel Dumes), as they break into a wealthier family’s house in their rural community and proceed to trash the place with slightly shocking vigor.
In her own home she’s scarcely more civil. Relations with her single mother Penelope (Ángela Cervantes, terrific), who runs a divey roadside cafe, pinball between uncontained aggression and occasional, more sisterly moments of bonding: As the pair lie together on Penelope’s bed taking selfies and choosing filters, we’re reminded that Andrea probably became a mother when she wasn’t that much older than Carla herself. When Carla is apprehended for vandalism by social workers, she’s startled to discover she’s five months pregnant — despite scant sexual experience with Efrain. (Our introduction to the two, in fact, finds them watching online porn with giggly naïveté.)
When she’s moved to a shelter in the city, where underage mothers and pregnant girls are given tough-love support by seasoned staff, reality hits hard — not just her own, but that of the other residents, most of whom come from abusive backgrounds, and regard the shelter as more of a sanctuary than a prison. Vividly played by real-life young mothers bringing their own experiences to the table, these peers all emerge not just as sounding boards for the frightened, defiant Carla, but as lively, dimensional characters in their own right — a credit to Palomero’s perceptive, responsive writing, as well as keen-eyed casting by Irene Roqué.
Structurally and dramatically, meanwhile, “La Maternal” doesn’t proceed according to convention, making a virtue of abrupt ellipses where one might expect emphasis. Eschewing a climactic birthing scene, for example, Palomero shows rather more interest in the day-to-day challenges of early child-rearing — daunting to anyone, but almost insurmountable to a new parent who’s still a child herself. “He doesn’t let me live my life,” Carla complains later of her sleepless, constantly wailing newborn, to only a modicum of sympathy from her adult minders and fellow mothers: That’s the whole deal of parenthood, after all, and ready or not, you can’t sulk your way out of it.
The film’s compassion, at least, is consistent, even as it permits Carla no easy, hugging-and-learning redemption, and doesn’t clear an obvious path for what’s sure to be a challenging future. Julian Elizalde’s intimate, soft-shadowed camerawork holds her close throughout, scrutinizing her face for subtle shifts and breaks in expression without ever making her feel like a lab subject. Just a brief half-smile in response to a rare moment of mother-baby connection plays in this acutely sensitive film like a seismic event, but “La Maternal” is careful not to idealize or romanticize the rewards of raising a child, also absorbing the stories of others for whom the burden is too much to bear. Towards the end, a wide shot of Carla pedaling her kid-size bike along an open road cuts two ways symbolically, nodding both to possibilities ahead and a childhood left rudely in limbo.