Teenage sisters try to track down their father in this charming debut from Panama

Sister & Sister

Sister & Sister

Dir/scr: Kattia G. Zuniga. Panama, Chile. 2023. 80mins

A coming-of-age drama about two teenagers that plays out over a few days in the heat of Panama City in the summertime, Sister & Sister is well-observed and aware of its own limits – quiet virtues for a charming film. Loosely based on events in the life of its first-time director, the film, which comes to Malaga by way of SXSW, is light of touch and pulls a delightful trick on the viewer: while initially the premise is the teenagers’ search for their father, they quickly forget all about him, as they should, to revel in their new-found freedoms. Although there are parts of Sister & Sister that feel very déjà vu, this a solid calling card for Zuniga.

Well-observed and aware of its own limits

Quiet and responsible 14-year-old Luna (Ariana Chaves Gavilan) and her livelier 17-year-old sister, wannabe pilot Marina (Cala Rossel Campos) – the difference in their ages is key to their power relations – have decided to travel from their home in Costa Rica to Panama City to meet their father for the first time after he upped and left the family a decade earlier. (Presumably their mother, about whom we learn very little, has blessed this potentially explosive project.)

Staying at the house of family friend Mafer (Michelle Quinones), her daughter Sol (Gabriela Man) and son Leon (Joshua de Leon), the two girls fall in with a local gang of skateboarders including hunky, slightly older Choma (Fernando Bonilla), who runs a skating school. Their attempts to meet their father become secondary, almost to the extent of being a McGuffin, as they explore their new freedoms, which of course are mostly romantic/sexual: Luna and Leon briefly kiss, which Luna doesn’t really like, while Choma and Marina, to Luna’s annoyance, have their summertime romance. 

There’s something very winsome about a movie predicated on a father who turns out in the end to be completely unnecessary to it. Indeed, the main reason for Marina wanting to meet him at all seems to be that she needs money for flying school. That feels very realistic: none of that nostalgia nonsense for these two.

The summertime ambience in middle-class Panama – the swaying palms, the swimming pool, the constant birdsong, the sunlight, shadow and fluttering curtains in pastel bedrooms – are all effectively rendered by cinematoggrapher Alejo Crisostomo. They evoke a kind of fleeting paradise, and it’s nice for a change to see that this particular Eden looks as though it’s going to remain intact in their memories. The girls chat at night about orgasms and other issues and, despite moments of tension, it’s clear that the trip has brought them closer together. The young first-time actresses playing these characters are both solid, directed with an eye on naturalness above all else.

The pace is leisurely without feeling slow, but somewhat inexplicably and probably unnecessarily, a couple of scenes are shot in slo-mo, the first one – showing Marina’s first kiss with Choma – accompanied by music. This introduces a note of kitsch entirely out of keeping with the generally understated tone. On the upside, there are a couple of deliciously observed moments which take the film onto a different level  – one in particular, featuring a liquidiser and Mafer’s youngest daughter dancing in the garden, is sheer magic.

Production companies: Ceibita Films, Mente Publica 

International sales: Pluto Film, Benjamin Colle benjamin@plutofilm.de

Producers: Alejo Crisostomo, Isabella Galvez Penafiel, Katta G. Zuniga, Said Isaac

Cinematography: Alejo Crisostomo

Production design: Micaela Canales Barquero

Editing: Andrea Chignoli

Music: Michelle Blades

Main cast: Ariana Chaves Gavilan, Cala Rossel Campos, Gabriela Man, Fernando Bonilla, Michelle Quinones, Joshua de Leon, Mir Rodriguez