Dir: Fernando Eimbcke. Mexico. 2008. 81 mins .
At first, Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke's second film appears to be another droll, quirky movie about teenagers which remind us that sometimes, when nothing happens, everything happens. Rather like his debut, Duck Season, which garnered festival action, critical plaudits and theatrical release in 30 territories - including the US - following its Cannes debut.
It even uses one of the same young actors, Diego Catano; initially, the only obvious difference is that Lake Tahoe is set outside and shot in colour rather than black and white.
But it gradually becomes clear that something else is going on here, and by the end what began as an exercise in Latin American deadpan comedy a la 25 Watts has developed a firm emotional grip.
It's also a textbook example of how to tell a story in pictures rather than words. The little dialogue there is stands at several removes from what matters - which is one of the things that makes Lake Tahoe such an accurate portrait of a teenage boy.
Picked up by Paris-based sales company Funny Balloons a month before its Berlinale competition bow, the film should at least equal the impressive distribution tally of Eimbcke's debut.
Lake Tahoe's siesta pace, and the fact that we have to sit through almost an hour before we're given the information that causes us to reassess the film's likeable inconsequentiality, will winnow out the popcorn audience.
But this is still a surefire arthouse bet, and although the story is small its style is big and theatrical: the limpid widescreen photography of Alexis Zabe (Duck Season, Silent Light) is not designed for a TV screen.
Long static shots establish the sunny desolation of a small Mexican port town (actually Puerto Progreso in Yucatan) in the off season. Juan (Catano) has crashed his car into a telegraph pole on a deserted street; we don't know why, or even whether the car is really his.
He goes in search of a mechanic, and for a while we feel we've stumbled into a deadpan Mexican version of the Iranian film The White Balloon, as Juan has run-ins with a series of characters in an increasingly circuitous attempt to fix the problem.
These include Don Heber (Herrera), a grumpy old mechanic with a dog; Lucia (Valentine), a punkette wannabe-vocalist and teen mother who works (or mostly doesn't work) in an auto parts shop; her boss (or lover' we never find out) David (Juan Carlos Lara), who is more interested in turning Juan on to kung-fu than fixing his Nissan.
As in Duck Season, the use of a cast of mostly non-professional actors who are not making much attempt to emote, grounds the film's performances in a highly believable teen world.
Eimbcke is a master of tone, moving deftly from funny-profound scenes of teen neo-realism to others - like one in which Juan is dragged around town by Don Heber's dog - that are pure slapstick.
The deliberate pace, from one carefully-framed static camera shot to another, is accentuated by an obtrusive use of blackscreen scene dividers, some lasting several seconds - though the sound often runs on, and the effect can be hilarous rather than artsy (as when we get Enter The Dragon with the sound efffects but no picture).
The only burst of music in a soundtrack dominated by background traffic noise and dog barks comes when Lucia turns on her ghettoblaster.
After its shift into more conventionally-dramatic territory around 55 minutes in, the script sets itself the problem of where to go, post-revelation. Though there is a brief lull, the film finds its feet again, and the ending is surprisingly moving, without being remotely sentimental.
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Jaime Bernardo Ramos
Juan Carlos Lara