Lila Avilés’ Tótem, Mexico’s selection for Best International Feature Film at the 2023’s Academy Awards that didn’t make the cut, offers a unique fly-on-the-wall point-of-view on a typical family drama.  The movie’s perspective commits to a cramped aspect ratio but doesn’t marry itself to a specific identity, giving the audience a true outsider’s view of a personal conflict they’re infringing on.

Primarily taking place over the course of a day, young Sol (Naíma Sentíes) observes her family preparing a birthday party for her terminally ill father, Tona (Mateo García Elizondo).  Most of Sol’s day is spent in wandering, curious boredom after her aunts advise giving her dad time to rest before the big evening.  The adults, coming to terms that this is most likely going to be Tona’s last birthday, try their best to be there for each other.

The slice-of-life filmmaking fits the exclusive degree of the story’s privacy, as it allows the movie goer to examine the high emotions that are revolving around a day known, otherwise, for celebration.  This angle also benefits from the genuine performances by a perfectly cast ensemble.  The casual nature of Tótem’s narrative, however, can leave the viewer feeling as restless as Sol;  as we wait for something to happen.

The final third of Avilés’ drama truly sends home a message of goodwill, dodging notes of goopy sentimentality (ala Moon Manor).  Everyone invited to the party is aware of the inevitable but, instead of wallowing and fearing death, the party is a reminder of the affection that has supported Tona.  Sadness lingers in the air, but not without lovely compassion to accompany it.


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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie

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