El Universal – October 13, 2006
Special to The Herald Mexico
Having accomplished such acclaimed short features as “Taxidermy: The Art of Imitating Life” (1999), “Billy Twist” (2000), “The Passenger” (2001) and her widely acclaimed documentary about children’s lives on Mexico City’s streets, “Niños de la calle” (2003), Aridjis will present her first fictional full-length film, “The Favor,” at next week’s Morelia International Film Festival in the state of Michoacán for its Mexican debut.
Filmed in 2004, the feature has been running the festival circuit, most recently appearing in this year’s Las Vegas Film Festival and the San Diego Film Festival, where “The Favor’s” star Ryan Donowho won the Best Actor Award.
The film will have its Mexican premiere on Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Morelia Festival, and Aridjis will be arriving to promote the film one day before.
In her earlier work “Niños de la calle,” Aridjis painted gritty portraits of young people placed in a world of abuse, rejection, prostitution and drugs that makes it impossible for them to integrate into modern Mexico.
“The Favor” confirms Aridjis’ exceptional talent for zeroing in on adolescent identity crises, in which characters are caught in an unending state of anguish and uncertainty.
At the same time, the film reveals a visual elegance in every frame. The director’s incisive clarity and attention to detail are brought to the fore with her choice of music and dialogues that are as intelligent as they are Spartan. With “The Favor,” Aridjis exhibits ease at getting her actors to give exceptional performances. Filled with humanity and intimacy, they will linger with filmgoers long after they have left the movie theater.
The film’s narrative structure seems simple, though underneath the surface complicated and claustrophobic lives entwine as one might expect from tales of betrayed trusts.
After years alone, Lawrence (Frank Wood), a middle-aged pet photographer, finally thinks he’s caught a break. Caroline (Laura Breckenridge), the girl who dumped him back in high school, is back in his life and ready to start anew. But in the blink of an eye she is taken away and he feels obliged to adopt her pot-smoking, angst-filled son, Johnny (Ryan Donowho).
For Lawrence, the experience of love found then lost then found then lost again is a cruel torment and one that casts a shadow on his ability to open up to Johnny. He has lost what may be his last chance at love and now is handed the trying task of caring for a young man who would rather be left alone.
In “The Favor,” one hears an echo of Richard Attenborough’s “Shadowlands” (1993). Both films tackle the theme of a man’s adoption of the son of his former loves. But upon closer inspection, you can see any resemblance is coincidental. Whereas Attenborough has Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger play out the theme in an ultra-sentimental melodrama, Aridjis uses the adoption as a point of departure. The act makes its mark on the plot but then immediately pulls away from any notion of sentimentality, submerging the viewer into a world of demons and ghosts as Johnny and his adopted father Lawrence clash.
For Lawrence and Johnny, there is a very clear boundary between their inner and outer worlds. Lawrence feels more comfortable viewing the world through the lens of his camera, and Johnny gets stoned to tune out the noise of the world. But when Lawrence accepts Johnny as a son, it opens a door that threatens their ability to disconnect from the outside world.
Two powerful, dialogue-free sequences pull the film into focus for the viewer, and give evidence of Aridjis’ visual mastery. The first captures the unspoken energy – both creative and destructive – trapped inside Johnny. It takes place in a school’s empty recreation room. He comes up to a piano and, after hammering away wildly, he strikes an unexpected melody, at which point he kicks a ball with all his fury.
The other sequence shows what seems to be an open window. But the glass is really there even though we don’t see it. The theme of an invisible obstacle dividing the inner world from the outer is strikingly restated.
The film’s ending is left open. The image shown is perfect, as if it were one of Lawrence’s photographs. In it, a young woman is dressed in vibrantly colored clothes. Her dog is at her side. Her anxious expression is captured through the lens bridging her thoughts to the thoughts of the photographer.
Filmgoers might intuit what Aridjis is trying to say to us: despite betrayed loyalties, despite the insurmountable moral distance between two generations, there will always be room left for hope. And above all, with any favor, more than having a spiritual meaning, it is an inner journey of the conscience that can become a veritable descent into Hell before it can find resolution. This works in two directions: both for he who offers the favor and for he who receives it.
Nedda G. de Anhalt has covered the New York Film Festival for 20 years. Author of “Cine: La gran seducción,” among other books, she has contributed film reviews to Unomásuno, Nitrato de Plata, Voces y Reflejos and Cinemanía – a magazine for which she served on the editorial board.
“The Favor” (Mexico, 2006, 110 min.)
Written and directed by: Eva Aridjis.
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh.
Cast: Frank Wood, Ryan Donowho, Laura Breckenridge, Isidra Vega, Paige Turco, Michael Higgins, Luke Robertson, Wally Dunn, Sterling K. Brown, Jesse Nelly.
The Mexican premiere will take place at the Morelia International Film Festival on Thurs., Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the Cinépolis Morelia Centro.