Lila Avilés’ Tótem is a tearjerker of a family drama that will stay with you because of how unbelievably relatable it is, from the story to the tiniest character details. Unapologetic in its tenderness and love, this is a remarkable, charming heartbreaker of a film. Beautiful in every possible way.
Seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes) is spending the day at her grandfather’s home for a surprise party for Sol’s father, Tonatiuh. As daylight fades, Sol understands that her world is about to change dramatically.
Tótem is as close to a family drama as you will ever see, a film that leans on the sorrow and the unmistakable essence of what it means to have your family around you when you need it. It also manages not to feel overly manipulated, which is challenging to succeed at in a film like this. You become emotional at certain moments because you relate to them deeply and profoundly. Importantly, those scenes feel so natural that they wash over you to great effect. Despite the sadness that the family is trying to push to the side, for now, the overwhelming sense of love present is what sticks with you.
For 99% of Tótem, we follow the trials and tribulations of a family at the end of their emotional tether, chaotically roaming around their house and garden as they prepare and have a party. It doesn’t seem like the most appealing of watches on the page. However, she has conjured up something remarkably special here with her sophomore feature film. Tótem pulls you along in ways that you can never imagine, and it becomes a film that, if you go in as blind as possible, ends up being a truly unforgettable experience.
Filmed in an observational style by Diego Tenorio, with the camera usually tucked down a bit lower to give the feel that we are watching all of these events from Sol’s point of view, even when we know she couldn’t possibly be in the room. Tenorio captures every fracture in the façade the family are trying to show to one another, each one afraid to show how they really feel, so when he somehow gets us even closer to our characters and some do begin to show the devastation that has been eating at them, it breaks you.
As Tótem weaves its way around the multi-generational family abode, you immediately find yourself relating to characters and how they relate to your family. Who hasn’t had that younger cousin who gets away with everything, but at their core is goodness? After all, they are just a kid. We have the off-kilter and weird aunts who believe in things the rest of your family would shake their heads at. Even seeing your aunts and uncles argue playfully enough with one another as their teenage selves come hurtling back to them now that they are again confined to a small space. We even have the grumpy grandparent who just wants peace from all the madness.
If that seems like a lot to throw into a film with over a dozen characters, each having their moments on screen, you would be correct, but this is on purpose. As chaotic and frantic as this family is as they prepare for the party for Tona, there is a reason for that. They want to be there for their brother, to show him how much they love him and how important he is. You find yourself smiling at moments that resonate personally with you. Indeed, in my screening, different pockets of the audience would utter the odd chuckle at different times as the characters on the screen did something that connected to them. That is the beauty of Avilés’s work in Tótem; it captures you and has you glued for the entire runtime in such a marvellously emotional and dazzling manner.
By having us see most of this through the eyes of young Sol (played with such incredible poise by Naíma Sentíes) we see innocence all around us. The joy of having a pet goldfish named Nugget, the love of having her aunts and uncles dote all over her as she moves about the house. To then see that innocence wane as she desperately and repeatedly tries to visit her father for some comfort that she has clearly been missing for a while. We later see that innocence evaporate as quickly as the smoke from a blown candle as she sits and looks at her father’s cake. An excruciatingly poignant and breathtaking scene that almost haunts you.
How Avilés conjured up all of these moments that we see within Tótem will forever be a mystery; some are offhandedly bizarre, such as a supposed psychic waving around a roll of burning on a stick to wave off any negative energies in the house. To when Sol and Tona finally get their moment to be together. Tótem builds itself to that moment, and you find yourself pushing the tears away as we get to see father and young daughter have their beautiful moment together, and then we realise that this is nowhere near the end of the film; Avilés has far more up her sleeve.
She impressively stages so many moments for her characters to be around their family. Yet, somehow, they still feel as if they are alone. Nuria (Montserrat Marañon) almost continually has her young daughter Esther (Saori Gurza) around her, causing a bit of a nuisance. Her other siblings come and go to tease and plead for her to come out to the party. She has her family right there, yet there is a distance. Like all of them, she is going through an emotional rollercoaster that she cannot stop, so she focuses on the cake. Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) focuses on the party. They are all together physically, and the love is there for each other, yet, for just now, there is a disconnect and a hint of loneliness that they are facing at a void soon to be spread wider.
A slight diversion, so excuse me, but as it won’t happen, if there was any justice present within this world, whatever ensemble acting prizes that exist this year would be handed to the cast of Tótem. Everyone is on point; most importantly, it feels like a family. They know each other so well that their (probably) daily disputes don’t even cause a scratch upon each other anymore. You cannot buy this group’s level of intimacy to the film.
This masterclass from Avilés shows us the complexities of what goes through the minds of not only a child but an entire family in such difficult circumstances. By doing so in such a sincere and authentic manner, it ends up being a film that leaves you astounded. Avilés has made one of the best films of the year.
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