Dir: Fernando Guzzoni. France/Chile/Germany/Greece/Colombia, 2016. 87 mins
In just about any country you care to name, they’re making harsh-toned youth culture films which demonstrate in gruelling detail that the kids are decidedly not all right. At moments in Jesús, the second feature by Chilean director Fernando Guzzoni (Dog Flesh, 2012), you’re close to thinking you’ve seen it all before – not least in the work of Larry Clark – but a delve into the vacant world of a teenage boy and his pals later takes a turn towards something different, a study of a fraught father-son relationship with attendant painful issues of moral responsibility.
The film imaginatively uses a presumably tight budget to claustrophobic advantage.
Strong performances by the film’s two leads, plus a vivid, presumably well researched youth-scene backdrop, will give Jesús an edge at festivals – including ones with LGBTQ focus - and in niche spots where distinctive Latin American realism is in demand.
The film’s title, and the protagonist’s name, common though it is in Latino countries, is presumably meant to strike an ironic chord: this particular 18 year-old is no messiah, just a very naughty, certainly very confused boy. Jesús (Nicolás Duran) is a kid from Santiago, Chile and a member of an amateur male dance group who energetically strut their stuff, boy-band style, at Korean-pop dance-offs – a social context that gives the film its very boisterous opening.
The rest of the time, Jésus hangs out with friends, enjoys casual sex in parks, and cultivates a sexually ambivalent pop-star image, to the despair of his often absent father Hector - strongly played by Chilean stalwart Alejandro Goïc, recently seen in Pablo Larrain’s The Club and Neruda.
Much of the film feels like a nervy but vaguely directionless quasi-documentary about a particular corner of the Chilean youth scene – and it’s hard to imagine, given the film’s rough-edged candour, that Larry Clark isn’t an influence, either for movies such as kids or for his documentary photos. The first half of Jesús, low on narrative as such, depicts the repetitive, aimless days of a kid going nowhere, just passing time – whether by watching online footage of narco executions or by having a casual encounter with a young woman, in one of two fairly graphic sex scenes. The other shows Jesús getting together with his male friend Pizarro, resulting in a rare moments of genuine tenderness.
Throughout it all, Jesús seems generally out of it, disconnected from the world – and is in fact effectively a detached bystander in a nasty episode instigated by his circle’s alpha male Beto. In the park one night, a drunken boy is at first befriended, then brutalized – and Jesús seems to be the only one whose conscience is affected. When the episode hits the daily news – marking the film’s shift towards a clearer narrative shape – Jesús’s desire to come clean leads Beto to lean on him, leaving him scared and isolated. This is where Hector comes into his own as a caring, if not obviously responsible father, helping Jesús hide from justice – while himself briefly becoming the focus of the story. But the final scene truly takes a surprise turn, as Hector opts for a very difficult form of tough love.
Photographed by leading Latin American DoP Barbara Alvarez (The Second Mother, The Headless Woman) in a bustling style sometimes recalling the Dardenne brothers – plenty of head and shoulders shots of characters walking – the film imaginatively uses a presumably tight budget to claustrophobic advantage. Durán and the other young cast members are commendably uninhibited, both in the sex scenes and in what are presumably improv-heavy hanging-out sequences. Thematically, the film seems downbeat, if not despairing, in its depiction of a world of empty hedonism and second-hand culture – whether it’s Chilean kids acting Korean, or TV performers imitating Barry White – but a brief snatch of radio news about student militancy reminds us that Guzzoni isn’t suggesting we give up on an entire generation, not just yet.
Production companies: JBA Production, Rampante Films, Unafilm, Graal
International sales: Premium Films, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Marianne Dumoulin, Jacques Bidou, Giancarlo Nasi, Titus Kreyenberg, Konstantina Stavianou
Screenplay: Fernando Guzzoni
Cinematography: Bárbara Álvarez
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Main cast: Nicolás Durán, Alejandro Goïc, Gastón Salgado, Sebastián Ayala, Esteban González