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A SECOND LOOK

'Lake Tahoe' is a journey of grief

In Fernando Eimbcke's film, a young man goes on a quest to fix his car, finding a human connection when he desperately needs it.

November 08, 2009|Dennis Lim

At first glance "Lake Tahoe," the second feature by the 39-year-old Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke, looks very much like your standard minimalist import. Laconic characters, a fixed camera and unhurried rhythms amount these days to a lingua franca for international art film. It's a style that descends from such titans as Yasujir{omacronl} Ozu and Michelangelo Antonioni and that can now be seen in movies from every part of the world, not least those striving to capture the modern condition of estrangement and dislocation.

"Lake Tahoe," which takes shape around its somber young hero's encounters with a series of quirky strangers, seems in particular to be emulating the funny-sad hangdog tales of Jim Jarmusch and his Finnish brother-in-arms Aki Kaurismaki. But this supremely poised film, which arrives on DVD this week from Film Movement (a company that also releases its titles via a disc-of-the-month club for subscribers), becomes richer and less familiar as it goes along.

Set in a quiet town on the Yucatan peninsula (the geographically puzzling title is explained only in the touching final scene), "Lake Tahoe" begins with an off-screen accident. We hear a crash and see the aftermath: a red Nissan slammed against a telephone pole, unable to start. It's a wry opening joke for a comedy of stasis.

The teenage driver, Juan (Diego Catano), sets off on foot, from one auto shop to another, looking for someone who can help. First he finds a grumpy old mechanic (Hector Herrera), who mistakes him for a burglar. At a car-parts store he gets interested looks -- though not much help -- from two young workers: a single mother with a passion for punk rock (Daniela Valentine) and a Bruce Lee-loving goofball who calls himself The One Who Knows (Juan Carlos Lara).

This might sound like run-of-the-mill indie kookery, but "Lake Tahoe" keeps the focus on the enigmatic mind-set of its hero and slowly parcels out clues about a recent family trauma. After a frustrating visit home, the tenor and emotional meaning of the film shift: the alienated-teen movie we thought we were watching grows up before our eyes.

Eimbcke's endearing first feature, "Duck Season" (2004), was a slacker comedy confined to a Mexico City apartment devoid of parents; it captured with impressive precision the torpid rhythms of adolescent downtime. Even more meticulous, "Lake Tahoe" systematically overturns or at least complicates the cliches of the mini-genres it brings to mind (teen-angst laments, droll Odyssean journeys).

As Juan comes into contact again with his new acquaintances, his quest becomes much more than a rescue mission for a broken-down vehicle. Not just the designated straight man to the eccentrics he meets, he's a kid who's numb for a reason and who, even in his current state, vaguely realizes the need for basic human connection.

So many dramas about unhappy adolescents are rooted in tedium, restlessness, ennui. Eimbcke dares to make his film about the rawest and starkest of emotions: grief. It's a bold, surprising shift, one he executes with great tact and empathy -- he has said the story is based on a personal loss.

Working with the excellent cinematographer Alexis Zabe (who also shot "Duck Season" and another recent Mexican critical favorite, Carlos Reygadas' "Silent Light"), Eimbcke sticks to the established vernacular of deadpan cinema: long takes, head-on compositions, fades-to-black for both comic and melancholic purposes. But he also gives the locations a subtle vibrancy.

In a more predictable and less humane movie, this unremarkable patch of sunlit suburbia, with its empty lots and colorful but faded houses, would simply be a dead end, the nowheresville contributing to the lonely hero's psychic distress. But in "Lake Tahoe," from the perspective of a protagonist who's on the verge of withdrawing into himself, it's a way out, a space of possibility, where life is lived.

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