Monday, March 26, 2012
Shortly into El Bola, the twelve-year-old protagonist overhears a woman at his family's shop tell his father that "if we were Pablo's age, we wouldn't have any problems." If only that were true. Not only is that false in general terms (cartoonist Bill Watterson once said that "People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children,") but Pablo is living with a load that would be unbearable for anyone, in a household where breathing could get one beaten.
El Bola is a full-blooded film about child abuse, yet lacking cheap shock value (Joan Crawford smudged with face cream, screaming "NO WIRE HANGERS!" while her little daughter cowers, comes to mind.) Instead of a larger than life -- not to mention over the top -- performance as the crazy parent that wins a Razzle, this movie concentrates on the children affected. Not only that, but it directs these performances well, which is hard to do.
Sad-eyed Juan (José Ballesta), as Pablo, is the emotional center of the film. Pablo calls himself "Pellet," named after a little ball he keeps for luck, which doesn't seem to do him much good. He harbors an almost dog-like desire for a close friend, instead of the group of kids with whom he plays a dangerous game on the train tracks, further jeopardizing his safety, This security is found with Alfredo, the rough-around-the-edges son of a tattooist, who doesn't take to him at first, when he finds his pleas for friendship desperate-bordering-on-the-creepy. They bond quickly at an amusement park, taking us to the main conflict in the film, when Pablo's sadistic pop, Mariano, finds his son's aloneness threatened and tries to drive other people out of his life.
Alfredo's family's a wonder to a kid who has never known a home life without violence and painful punishment. A liberal, playful bunch, they talk about just about anything and joke and laugh at the dinner table, a far cry from Pablo's family, with his mother yelling at his incontinent grandmother and his father constantly comparing Pablo to their other son who died in a car crash. But Alfredo's life is far from perfect. His father has a temper as well. His gay godfather is dying from AIDS, and he isn't allowed to see him due to the state he's in.
The amazing thing about this film, which won the Spanish Academy Awards, and the child actors who have chosen to work in it, is the naturalness. The kids are not dumbed down or made into pretentious little douches who must read the dictionary every night before bed. They're living, breathing, thinking humans. (I'll underline "thinking" for future filmmakers to pay close attention to). They talk about death, sickness, food and phallic tattoos (can you get one? I don't know, and I suspect they don't either.) The dialogue seemed rarely scripted and very natural.
So what? I won't give a four-star rating, because, well, the character development isn't quite strong enough, but it's certainly a impressive debut with kids who, now that they're grown, are on the way to becoming great actors. It's very much worth watching. The question is, are you up for it?
(Rated NR. Although it is rather perversely categorized as a "father-son children & family movie" on Netflix, it is definitely not for kids.)