Club Sandwich (2013, directed by Fernando Eimbcke) is a coming of age story with an unusual point of view. Its young protagonist is a bundle of sexual confusion, as most such protagonists are. You've seen countless boys like him fumbling their way toward adulthood. In a male-dominated industry, these kinds of stories proliferate. What you generally don't see is the effect this has on the protagonist's parent(s). This film's primary insight is to look at what a mother might feel while watching her son discover his sexuality. That the film is quietly funny is a bonus. It's not glib, though, and it's doesn't take shortcuts. The slow accumulation of awkward moments becomes heavy over the course of the film and its ultimate disposition is more bittersweet than comedic. It's a good comedy that can reveal its characters without mocking or humiliating them. This manages to do exactly that.
Paloma and Hector, mother and son, are on an off-season vacation at an almost abandoned resort. They're close, more best friends than mother and son. They spend their days lounging by the pool or horsing around in the water. Into this idyll comes another family, with a teen daughter, Jazmin. When Hector falls asleep in the sun, it's Jazmin who wakes him up and treats the subsequent sunburn. Hector is attracted to Jazmin and soon, they're trying to find private time together away from both of their parents. Paloma eventually finds out, of course, as mothers always do. At first, she's concerned, giving Hector advice on birth control. Then she's jealous, because her relationship with her son has dramatically changed. She feels possessive, and begins inserting herself between Hector and Jazmin. Eventually, she needs to let go and let him live his life, but can she? That is the question...
Some time early in this film, there's a conversation between Paloma (María Renée Prudencio) and Hector (Lucio Giménez Cacho) in which Hector asks her why she's chosen the polka-dotted bikini over the red one she has with her. She likes it better, she says. Hector prefers the red one. The red bikini is one of this films overt talismans. Hector tries it on, as teen boys sometimes do with their mothers' clothing, and masturbates while wearing it. When it becomes clear that Hector is more interested in Jazmin than in spending quality time with his mother, Paloma begins to wear the red bikini in preference to the polka-dotted one. The film makes no mention of this. It just happens in the course of observing these characters, but that doesn't mean it doesn't want you to notice. It does, it's just more subtle about it. That's the nature of the comedy in this film--and it is a comedy for all its awkward silence. It's oblique. That's also the nature of the subtle thread of melodrama, too, which displaces the comedy later in the film. Or maybe it's more correct to say that the comedy and the melodrama work in concert with each other. Certainly, the comedy cedes the final impact of the film to the melodrama, with Paloma exiled from her son's life while his sexuality blossoms.
This is a careful, observational film that points its camera at its subjects and lets things play out. It's not flashy. It doesn't try to bludgeon you with the beauty of its shot compositions--it's composed, but the motel where this is set is the very definition of mundane--or with clever editing. It's patient. Its main concession to the conventions of cinema is its placement of figures in the frame, with that placement indicating relationships even when there's no dialogue to illuminate them. This film is often laconic, with Hector being an archetype of a non-committal teen boy who shares nothing of himself with anyone. He's not inarticulate. He's just withdrawn into himself. It's this inscrutability of adolescence that encourages the filmmakers to examine the effect of her son's blooming libido on Paloma. Paloma seems younger than she is. In the first scenes of the film, before their relationship has been clearly delineated, it would be easy to mistake them for brother and sister. There's a sexual tension between them, too, that the film mercifully chooses not to explore. Paloma's jealousy for Jazmin is not a sexual jealousy so much as it's a jealousy toward a perceived threat to her life's meaning. The closeness of Paloma and Hector is palpable early and almost completely absent later.
This is all carefully controlled within the film frame. Even though it eschews non-diegetic music and is mostly shot in long takes, this is not a film in which "realism" is paramount. Oh, it's realistic enough: the environs are dreary for a resort location and the relationships at the center of the film are credible and moving, but the deadpan here is ever so slightly stylized in a way that gives the film the air of a satire. That goes hand in hand with the film's awkward silences and even more uncomfortable conversations. And while I say that the film is edited in long takes, it knows where to cut when it does. This results in some of its best jokes and in the end it results in its ultimate bittersweet humanity.
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