Mexican director Michel Franco’s signature is a sensationalistic storyline told in a dry manner. The basic idea of April’s Daughter is made for tabloid TV—teen pregnancy as the natural outcome of a broken home. However, Franco doesn’t present this scenario in a way you’d expect. The young mother, Valeria (Ana Becerril), is 17 and, we are led to believe from the very start, likes sex a lot. She lives with her older sister, Clara (Joanna Larequi), in a nice rustic house on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, a situation that belies their material circumstances. Both are dropouts working part-time jobs. We soon learn that the house is owned by their mother, April (Emma Suarez), who doesn’t live with them and for some reason isn’t aware that Valeria is pregnant, even though she’s already 7 months along when the movie opens. Clara, a moody, lonely girl who resents Valeria’s dissipated lifestyle, tells April of her sister’s condition against Valeria’s wishes, and April shows up promising to help out. At first Valeria is suspicious and resentful, as if she’s seen this scene before and learned not to believe in it, but her fears over the coming delivery prove to be too much and she asks her mother to stay and see her through. Valeria’s boyfriend, the studly but somewhat clueless Mateo (Enrique Arrizon), is all for it, since his own parents want nothing to do with the child.
Franco never quite elucidates the family history that would explain what transpires, which is both disturbing and narratively problematic. April, we learn, gave birth to her two daughters when she was not much older than the age Valeria is now, and wasn’t married to the girls’ father (or fathers? Clara and Valeria are too dissimilar to be believable as siblings), who was some 30 years older than she was. Though he shows up in the film briefly, he doesn’t seem to have much to do with his daughters or with April, for that matter, which begs the question: How does April survive herself? She seems to be fairly well off, and though she mentions a job in the film industry at one point, she never seems to work. It isn’t as if Franco were being lazy about these plot points, but rather that he wants the mystery of April’s situation to inform our understanding of her cruel and impractical actions. Eventually, she lives up to Valeria’s worst fears and then goes even further, forcing the girl to go to extraordinary lengths to put her life back together again. But even at the end the viewer struggles to distinguish the lies the characters tell from the truths behind them.
Franco’s storytelling methodology is infuriating, but the movie is nonetheless successful as a potboiler. It may, in fact, be too mannered. Had the director used a more sensationalistic approach, he could have retained the mystery and made it acceptable. By treating the whole affair as a psychological study instead of a cautionary tale he robbed it of its natural dramatic potential. Good for film festivals, but not quite what the material deserves.
In Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space (03-3461-0211).
April’s Daughter home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Lucia Films S. de R.L de C.V. 2017