The opening shot of "Too Late to Die Young," Dominga Sotomayor's mysterious and absorbing new movie, is framed from inside a car as it gradually fills up with young passengers. In time we will get to know a few of these kids and also some of the adults we see waving goodbye through the vehicle's dirt-smudged windows.
It's a simple, unremarkable moment in a movie set to the quotidian rhythms of communal life, but it also reveals something of Sotomayor's methods. The tight, deliberate framing of the image is a typical touch in a story that never pretends to offer more than a partial view of events and is in no particular hurry to explain itself.
Which is not to say that Sotomayor, a Chilean filmmaker directing her third feature (after "Thursday Till Monday" and "Mar"), traffics in deliberate obfuscation. She soon cuts away from that early image to show us a few others – a dog running down a dirt road, a heap of branches bursting into flame – that are striking enough in the moment and take on an eerie resonance in retrospect. In time the camera will settle on a 16-year-old girl, Sofia (Demian Hernandez), whose unpredictable moods and romantic complications mark her as the clear protagonist of this story.
But even as it borrows a few beats and riffs from the coming-of-age drama (and from Sotomayor's own childhood), "Too Late to Die Young" is marked by a fascinating open-endedness, a strange and intriguing reticence as to who and what it's really about.
Although there are no obvious on-screen indicators, we are in the final weeks of 1990, shortly after the collapse of Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. The politics remain largely in the background, but from time to time you may wonder if these tumultuous, unremarked-on events are the source of the characters' unease, or if Sofia's coming-of-age might be a metaphor for a nation on the verge of embracing democracy.
Certainly freedom is an essential component of how she and her family, friends and neighbors live. The adults are mostly artistic types who have withdrawn from society to form a small community in the shadow of the Andes, near a swimming hole where the young kids splash and play while the older folks laze about in the heat of a gorgeous Chilean December.
But the warm, idyllic mood conceals an undercurrent of frustration, even menace. The characters complain from time to time about the shortage of clean water and the lack of electricity. Some off-screen unpleasantness, including a break-in and some property damage, suggests that all is not well in paradise. The prospect of a new year on the horizon seems both bright and somewhat ominous.
Sofia has nothing but contempt for her gruff, barely communicative father. Outside their home, she develops an attachment to an older man, Ignacio (Matias Oviedo), whom she seems to prefer to the 16-year-old boy Lucas (Antar Machado), who's smitten with her. But the movie appears less interested in resolving her indecision than lingering in it, observing her as she smokes and bathes and engages in the occasional act of self-harm.
Hernandez, making a remarkable screen debut, teaches us to read her through her fleeting smiles and reproachful gazes. But a certain, crucial emotional distance remains.
For all her expressive eloquence, Sofia is as opaque a figure as those around her, as if the movie were reluctant to presume access to her psyche or pluck her away from her surroundings. The story remains similarly aloof when it follows a younger girl, Clara (Magdalena Totoro), whose family goes off in search of their dog in what becomes the movie's most wrenching and quietly withering scene.
"Too Late to Die Young" is arriving in U.S. theaters after its 2018 run at film festivals including Toronto, New York and Locarno, where Sotomayor became the first woman to win the directing prize. Her sharp, elusive style has been compared to that of Lucrecia Martel, the Argentine auteur behind such richly enigmatic social satires as "The Holy Girl" and "The Headless Woman." Those films were less stories than sensory puzzles, using limited perspective and evocative sound design to illuminate a way of life from deep within.
Sotomayor isn't as radical a formalist as Martel, though she too enjoys playing games with the viewer's perceptions. (The dusky, shallow-focus cinematography is by Inti Briones.) Her achievement here is not to reinvent the coming-of-age narrative so much as recontextualize it, refusing the temptations of solipsism that can sometimes seep into cruel stories of youth. Rather than viewing Sofia in isolation, she positions the character on a continuum with an unruly and ultimately unknowable swath of humanity.
The movie's tight parameters – it runs under two hours and plays out over a few days in an era now lost to history – allow us to perceive that humanity only in stray glimpses. But those glimpses are all the more compassionate and affecting for being so abbreviated. "Too Late to Die Young" doesn't pretend to show us everything, which makes it all the more remarkable just how much it sees.