A film about inertia suffers the consequences
"Lake Tahoe" opens with the throaty revving of a car engine. Lanky teen Juan (Diego Cataño) has crashed the family Nissan into a pole, just the first in a series of woeful inconveniences that plague him as he wrestles with far weightier troubles at home. This low-budget Mexican film from director Fernando Eimbcke, whose debut was the well-received "Duck Season," is a graceful and touching portrait of loneliness and loss. But in the end, the sparse dialogue and lengthy scenes make the film feel as leaden and listless as Juan's sputtering engine.
Granted, "Lake Tahoe" is a film about inertia. Its presiding metaphor is the impossibility of escape. Juan trudges through a string of dazzlingly inefficient auto repair shops; gruff, balloon-bellied car mechanic Don Heber (Hector Herrera) is too old and out of shape to take his dog for a walk; teen mom and auto shop employee Lucía (Daniela Valentine) dreams of fronting a punk band and aches to go to rock concerts but can't leave her baby son at home by himself.
Eventually, after a bit of clunky foreshadowing, we learn the reason for the film's plaintive soundtrack and mournful cuts to black: Juan's father has died and his mother is wallowing in solipsistic gloom while her two sons are left to grapple with their loss alone.
The sluggish plot is enlivened by flashes of wry comedy (when Juan declines to eat a bowl of cereal, Don Heber summons his dog, who gamely wolfs it down) and poignancy (Juan sobs as he and Lucía clutch each other in a desperate, shirtless embrace). Nutty Kung Fu-obsessed auto repairman David (Juan Carlos Lara) is a reliable source of comic relief.
The camera shots have a stark elegance: Juan's red car on an empty road; decrepit storefronts hunkering in the sun; Juan's grieving mother (Mariana Elizondo) collapsed in a bathtub, just one cigarette-wielding hand visible beyond the shower curtain.
For the most part, the camera does not follow the actors, who move in and out of a fixed frame. This lends the film a voyeuristic feel. The incidental, unremarkable details of a scene - trash blowing down a sidewalk, rustling leaves - are given as much cinematic heft as the actors themselves.
"Lake Tahoe," then, is about coming to terms with the ordinariness of life. It is a tender and honest look at the futility of trying to run away from reality. But it ultimately sags under the weight of its bloated silences and stagnant story line. Even in the face of tragedy, Eimbcke seems to be saying, life - like the film - goes tediously on.
Laura Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org