SOUTH FLORIDA FILMMAKERS MAKE STYLISH DEBUT FEATURES
By Ruben Rosario, MiamiArtZine critic
Call it a Sunshine State of mind. An outlook on life brightened by those golden rays. As the country reels from last week's civil unrest in the nation's capital, and the possibility of more to come in the weeks ahead, many are looking to the promise of a year that's just gotten underway as motivation to embrace the positive, no matter what curve balls are thrown their way. Nihilism? Despair? Doom and gloom? They're all so 2020.
This reviewer would thus be remiss if he did not point you in the direction of two films currently available for digital rental or streaming. Their subjects? Oh, your basic litany of growing old, loneliness, marital woes, mental illness and institutionalized ostracism. Would it surprise you to learn these debut features from two South Florida filmmakers are also two of the most cheerful and creative movies available at the moment? Let's slice open these sweet and juicy Florida oranges.
For My Sister: Think of women's pictures. Films that focus on their identities, their struggles, as they interact with others who mean the most to them, be they a mother, sibling or close friend. They're the province of George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, of course, Pedro Almodóvar. Now imagine someone giving this material a sci-fi twist, on a shoestring budget. Director Gabriel Rhenals' DIY panache has yielded an odd hybrid that wears its intrinsic weirdness like a badge of honor. He has a Kafkaesque odyssey that's also a kitchen-sink drama and a dissection of bureaucratic groupthink, structured like a that's-so-Miami Alice in Wonderland.
It's a strange mélange Rhenals has cooked up, and yet the darn thing works, thanks to his go-for-broke boldness and skewed worldview. The central conceit, a company that has mastered time travel through the use of microscopic drones, winds up being one of its least interesting aspects. Like a found footage film, what we're seeing is an assembly cut taken from the drones' cameras, which provides a justification for close wide-angle shots, like in The Truman Show, and almost makes us forget this was all shot with a Samsung Galaxy S9+.
The story centers around Evie (Stephanie Maltez), who discovers to her dismay that her baby sis Tris (Cristina De Fatima), a college student who wants to be a journalist, is suffering from depression and refuses medical treatment. How come? This is where the film's deep-seated paranoia kicks into gear. In this alternate South Florida, a mental-illness diagnosis is a kiss of death, both socially and professionally. Evie, who lost her mother for this very reason, takes it upon herself to navigate quite the minefield in order to prevent Tris from suffering the same fate.
Much easier said than done. In paper, Evie's selfless journey to bring her sister back from the gaping void sounds sobering and grave, the indie version of a beloved series' Very Special Episode, if you will. But that's not the way Rhenals rolls. He peppers his film with kooky small roles that keep things intriguingly off-kilter. Take, for instance, the alternative medicine practitioner who looks and acts like the dullest accountant, or the black market antidepressant pusher who behaves like a creepy bro. They're on screen for about a minute, then they vanish into the ether.
The film's dream logic is offset by an anal retentive tendency to tabulate dates and times, and that deadpan adherence to keep a record enables Rhenals to generate empathy for his central siblings while poking fun at the heightened (un)reality they inhabit. When confronted with the Darwinian realities of her workplace, Evie is reminded that she lives in a “middle finger state.”
The lengths people will go to avoid having that dark blemish on their record takes For My Sister to adsurdist extremes, to the extent that parts of it play like a tall tale. It's the farthest thing removed from a social issue film, and that's why its portrayal of the emotional toll that comes from caring for someone with depression resonates so strongly. Rhenals' genre splicing pays off in dividends. He's made a message movie that feels like nothing of the sort. His nerdy eccentricities are a breath of fresh air.
'For My Sister' had several public screenings after premiering in 2019 and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.