A curious mix of bereavement drama, romantic comedy, and coming-of-age story, Family Members (Los miembros de la familia) is a muted experience. There is a lot to appreciate in the artistry and performances, yet its own modesty often seems to get in the way of true catharsis. While admirable for its oddball pairing, the film is ultimately more aesthetically pleasing than emotionally affecting.
Siblings Gilda (Laila Maltz) and Lucas (Tomás Wicz) stay the night in their deceased mother’s house by the seaside. They want to fulfill her final, cryptic wish: that her dismembered hand be tossed into the sea. The house has been foreclosed, but they break in any way and stay there illegally. Their plans to return to Buenos Aires, however, are quickly derailed by a coach strike, leaving the two of them stranded with each other, finally forcing them to deal with their unresolved issues.
Gilda and Lucas don’t talk that much. When Gilda asks him if he loves her, he spits his toothpaste in her face; Family Members doesn’t want to tell us much else about this brother-sister relationship straightaway, instead cultivating a certain melancholy mood that reflects the harsh reality of grief. The beach is rarely picturesque; a permanent cloud covers the sky. The town’s glory has faded, and nothing in the house they broke into works — they even have to go the toilet outside. Lucas works out, goes for runs, and avoids talking to his sister while she sends nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend, patiently waiting for the bus strike to end.
Family Members has an off-kilter aesthetic, perhaps reflecting the way the world feels off-balance when confronted with grief. This point is made explicit when Lucas is told that the entire world we live in might be a computer simulation. That might also explain why fitness fanatic Guido (Alejandro Russek), who also trains by the beach, is interested in him. The seventeen-year-old boy has no idea how to deal with the kindness of this simpler, older man, leading him to act out in highly erratic ways. Meanwhile, Gilda has a different approach to reality: relying on chakra stones and tarot cards. Yet, while Lucas’ storyline dovetails together nicely with his belief system — including a hilarious representation of men finally opening up to one another — Gilda’s seemingly goes nowhere, relying on the anti-conflict conceit of the nice boyfriend back home.
The presentation of these issues is always unforced, leaving little reason to invest in these characters, especially when Lucas’ life is given so much extra weight, leaving Gilda to be something of a cipher. While we do find out about Gilda’s turbulent life before mother died, this is all told and not shown. Therefore, the two of them, although they argue a little, don’t really contrast and conflict with each other in a dramatically pleasing way. Director Mateo Bendesky seems more interested in humorous incidents than creating something that really pops off the screen. This all seems intentional on the director’s part, yet a whimsical approach to grief is something even the finest of filmmakers can find hard to pull off (Wes Anderson is a good example of a successful one). Credit to Bendesky, however, for trying with his first feature.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.