Lake Tahoe (2009)

This review was originally published at Filmwell.

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[In Fernando Eimbcke's second feature, Lake Tahoe, a young man emerges from a car wreck and begins a long and maddening search for help. And it quickly becomes obvious that he's searching for something far more profound than a mechanic.

Eimbcke's film feels like a search as well. The filmmaker etablishes a rhythm of expansive, colorful, long-take shots (known to the pros as "master shots"). These scenes are interrupted by bold, sometimes lengthy, blackouts. And as we stare at those dark, blank screens, the story continues in sound. We never know where, or when, we'll be when the picture comes back on.]

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[...so each of these marvelously composed shots are like still life paintings. They give us view of the sun-baked storefronts, the vacant streets, and the cluttered interiors of a quiet Mexican town. Eimbcke's canvases are full of revealing details, and he gives generous time to each setting. Actors often enter the scene late, or depart early, leaving us to gaze, wait, and wonder. The more we study the organization of colors, objects, architecture, characters, and space, the more we begin to guess that there is meaning in the arrangement. He never moves the camera during a shot, letting the energy and motion come from the actors… primarily the lean, contemplative youth named Juan (Diego Cataño).

Clearly, this is a film about something more than what the characters do. This progression of richly textured views throughout a Mexican town almost demands that we consider the history of a…]

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[…and then, Juan’s red Nissan sedan enters this desolate scene and crosses the screen. The camera does not follow the car. As we continue to gaze at the once-again empty stretch of road, the importance of the car’s passage diminishes. The subject seems to shift. It’s not the car. It’s the absence. The open space. And the feeling that this pause instills in us lends a certain…]

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[… but why do we only hear the car crash? Why these long blackouts between scenes?

Perhaps Eimbcke lacked the financing to to film a car wreck. But surely there's  more than a low budget driving these decisions to keep certain things offscreen! The blackouts aren’t cop-outs. We’re meant to lean in and ask questions about the gaps. Did the driver fall asleep? And what would provoke someone on such a straight, open road to suddenly…]

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[The day goes on like a nightmare. When Juan walks into an auto repair shop, it seems at first to be deserted. Then we hear a voice respond, “We’re closed.” But we never see the speaker. This whole world seems closed. Every location, every life seems to be stalled. Everything and everybody in this town is missing vital pieces …]

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[… like Juan’s little brother who spends the day in a tent in the front yard. Their mother is almost invisible, lying in a blue bathtub behind a half-closed shower curtain. Only her hand holding a cigarette is visible. (When was the last time you saw an actor deliver a performance with only her hand and a cigarette?)]

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[…a dog ever given a better performance than the beautiful golden boxer that plays Sica? With his back to the camera, the motionless canine becomes the compelling center of a remarkable scene in which…]

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[Everywhere Juan goes, he’s entering situations that will help him consider ways to move through his depression.

As he continues his search for the harness, his requests for help from strangers often inspire the strangers to request help from him.

There’s the old mechanic, Don Heber (Hector Herrera), who might be able to help Juan fix his car. But Don Heber is much more interested in finding out what Juan can do to help him, or rather, his enormous boxer dog.

Then there’s Lucia (Daniela Valentine), a young single mother, who seems capable and even confident. But she also seems watchful for a babysitter. And there might be something more behind her question. Might Juan be father material?

One by one, we learn about the troubles and disappointments of these characters by looking over Juan’s shoulder. And one by one, we observe how they respond to those problems. Is Juan learning from their examples? There’s something hopeful in the way that Lucia and David respond to their own challenges with sudden decisions and cathartic action.

Lucia, disappointed that her evening plans have fallen apart, joins Juan in a few moments of solemn disappointment. But while Juan seems paralyzed, Lucia acts, seizing the moment for a gesture of profound (but rather extreme) consolation.

The most impulsive and endearing character of all, a lanky teen named David (Juan Carlos Lara II), is obsessed with Bruce Lee and Shaolin workouts. This seems, at first, to be just an adolescent’s obsession. But David’s single-minded commitment to sparring with a difficult world enables him to rocket through his days, weathering various setbacks, and maintaining a “can-do” spirit. David’s an unlikely mentor for Juan, but if anybody’s likely to get that car fixed, it’s him. “If you think something is impossible,” he says, “you will make it impossible.” And before it’s over, Juan will try his hand at…]

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[Juan also learns from his encounters with his elders. Some are gruff, some suspicious, some eager to evangelize. (During breakfast, David’s mother reads Scripture verses about the resurrection. Juan suddenly excuses himself from the table.) Others greet him with a caring embrace.

Later, when Juan drives the old mechanic, Don Heber, out on a search for something lost, the search leads to an unexpected discovery. Perhaps the loss was for the best. Perhaps the thing lost has arrived somewhere better. Considering Juan’s own trials, this suggests a new perspective…]

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[… obvious comparison, of course, is Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s deadpan, long-take scenes in Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law introduced me to this kind of storytelling, to a connect-the-excerpts approach. But Jarmusch works in wry comedy, absurdity, and existentialism. Eimbcke’s style draws me toward empathy rather than irony. He has more in common, I think, with director Aki Kaurismaki, finding warmth, humor, and the possibility of grace in these ragged environments. And his eyes for painterly settings and dilapidated structures recalls The Man Without a Past. ]

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[… seems at times to meander, but Eimbcke has a clear destination in mind, and we can sense it. Sure enough, in the last 20 minutes, we learn things that are both surprising and inevitable. What else could the movie’s secret have been? Once we learn the cause of Juan’s malaise, images we have already considered take on extraordinary significance, such as the sight of Juan reaching into the cradle and …]

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[… and I find myself wanting to spend time in this neighborhood. These streets and storefronts, which once seemed so empty and lifeless, are now so full of possibility.

But I’m also beginning to wonder if Eimbcke isn’t encouraging us to consider Juan’s experience as a metaphor for this whole Mexican town.

The town seems like a ruins. Something has broken down. An authority, a source of help and guidance and provision, has vanished from the world. The glory days are over. The absence is palpable and profound.

But hope can be found through action, as these characters prove capable of surprising tenderness, generosity, and trust. What is broken can be repaired. Those missing pieces can be replaced. And this fatherless boy may yet shake off the paralyzing malaise and learn to take responsibility, to find his way in the....]

*Lake Tahoe has been received by subscribers to Film Movement. It will become available on DVD everywhere in November.

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