There are moments in After Lucia (Después de Lucía) when you can’t help but look away from the screen. That’s not because the movie is particularly graphic or explicit. Writer-director Michel Franco, who won the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is able to arouse such strong emotions in the viewer, they sometimes become too much to bear. They’re overwhelming.
Using a style strongly influenced by Michael Haneke — his clinical use of mise-en-scène, achingly long takes and an aura of dread — Franco tells the story of Alejandra (Tessa Ia), a pretty, intelligent and somewhat naive teenager who moves from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with her father Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) after her mother dies in a car crash. At first, Alejandra blends in well at the upper-class school, making friends with the popular kids and getting invited to parties. When they ask about her mother, she tells them she stayed in Puerto Vallarta, opting to keep her grief quiet.
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She doesn’t even share it with her dad, a chef who quickly finds work at a restaurant but is otherwise too depressed to get out of bed. Father and daughter love each other intensely, but they’ve been emotionally wrecked by their loss, and they can only share cursory small talk. They keep their feelings to themselves, because to share them would burst open a dam neither is prepared to deal with yet.
Then Alejandra goes to a party, drinks a little too much and has sex with a boy (Gonzalo Vega Jr.) who films their encounter on his cell phone without telling her and posts it online. By the next day, everyone in school has seen it, and the bullying begins. First, it’s mostly name calling. Gradually, it turns physical. The school administrators turn a blind eye, and her father is too wrapped up in his sadness to notice.
And Alejandra remains passive, continuing to trust the same kids that are unleashing cruelty on her, believing things will eventually blow over. Instead, they get worse. Eventually, mob mentality takes over. Making Alejandra suffer extreme humiliation becomes a popular sport, and everyone joins in. No one intervenes.
Why doesn’t Alejandra do anything? Why doesn’t she fight back? Franco uses After Lucia to explore the various manifestations of grief. Roberto mourns his wife by hiding under his bedcovers. Alejandra becomes paralyzed and unable to act. She recedes further into herself after each case of bullying, until there no longer seems to be anyone present behind her beautiful eyes. The movie infuriates you as much as it shocks you, and Franco pushes things so far, some viewers might find the film stretches credibility.
But Alejandra is an outsider, a newcomer to a clique of wealthy brats, and once they realize she’s not going to report any of them no matter what horrible thing they do, they stop seeing her as a human being. She becomes an object, a toy, a metaphor for high school outcasts and misfits who suffer great loneliness and become targets for abuse and ridicule from other students. After Lucia builds to an almost unbearable level of tension, and although you may think you know how the story turns out, Franco has a different idea. The movie opens and closes with two long, uninterrupted shots. The first one, set inside a car, establishes Roberto’s dazed state of mind, still reeling from the death of his wife. The last one, set aboard a boat, ends the movie on a quiet note of horrifying catharsis that is impossible to shake.
Cast: Tessa Ia, Hernán Mendoza, Gonzalo Vega Jr., Tamara Yazbek.
Writer-director: Michel Franco.
Producers: Michel Franco, Marco Polo Contandse, Elias Menassé.
Running time: 93 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, brief violence, sexual situations, brief nudity, adult themes. Play at 9:30 p.m. Thursday at Miami Beach Cinematheque.