Film Movement // 2008 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // November 12th, 2009
Once you've finished running, you can return home.
"The theme is escape. Sometimes we want to escape reality, but sooner or later we finish confronting the whole truth." -- Director Fernando Eimbcke
After smashing the family car into a telephone pole on the outskirts of town, teenage Juan (Diego Cataño) searches a sleepy Mexican town for someone to help him fix it. He meets three people who provide help in a roundabout way: Don Heber (Hector Herrera), an old, paranoid mechanic who spends most of his day napping in his hammock; Lucia (Daniela Valentine), a single mother with a love of punk rock; and David (Juan Carlos Lara II), a resourceful fixer whose affinity for the kung fu philosophy stems from his love of martial arts movies. It's a long and frustrating day for Juan who is anxious to complete an errand and return home -- even though home is a tough place to be right now.
Lake Tahoe is a quiet and deceptively modest film possessing a great deal of charm and honest emotion. Juan is not a very aggressive protagonist, but his resilience in the face of frustration makes him memorably real. Likewise, the tone of the movie never tries too hard to sell its moments of quirky humor nor does it push the melodramatic elements. When the day finally draws to a close, you realize Juan handled the situation quite well all things considered.
The oddball characters that Juan meets on his mini-odyssey could have potentially tipped this boat into outrageous waters but, thankfully, director Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season) runs a tight ship with his second feature effort. The initially gruff mechanic Don Heber has a big dog but the pair's menace is quickly deflated when we witness Don's breakfast routine with the big beast. The martial arts-loving David could have really been an "out there" character but he too is grounded by his genuine desire to be helpful and his relationship with his mother. The scene when David reveals his kung fu skills is a wonderfully low-key comic moment. Lucia reveals herself as a lonely, bored young woman but she isn't needy or ditzy. I think the movie steps wrong during her final scene with Juan which is the only cliché moment in the story. For the most part, these characters feel real and the quirky light that is cast upon them is due to the fact that we're meeting them through Juan who is in a hurry to get his car running.
The first part of the movie feels very much like a comedy, but the story eventually takes us to the emotional heart of Juan's day. The scenes between Juan and his little brother are masterful in the way they show how boys relate to one another in tough times. The emotion isn't wrung out of their performances, rather, they exhibit a subdued bravery in an uncertain situation that makes them so believable.
Film Movement continues to champion independent and foreign films and their DVD presentation of Lake Tahoe is very fine. The picture is clean and sharp. Most of the movie is lit in bright sunshine yet the balance between highlights and shadows appears quite natural. Both audio track options are satisfying so it's more a matter of personal preference. The 5.1 surround mix shares some of the background environmental effects in the rear channels but is otherwise concentrated in the front sound stage. The surround mix has a bit more presence on the bass side as well. The 2.0 stereo mix has a slightly sharper, more precise feel as the mid to high frequencies come across stronger. The surround channel support feels mostly superfluous so I'm inclined to favor the stereo mix.
The DVD includes a trailer for the movie that is pretty dull. Worse, it gives away a key moment of the movie like it was a throwaway detail. Biographies of the director and cast are presented on a series of text screens. A short excerpt of an interview with the director is reprinted on the liner notes (actually, the reverse side of the cover art). The French short film Noodles, concerning the head-turning reaction inspired by a woman at a Japanese restaurant, is the final bonus on this disc. At six minutes, it's a painless, if forgettable, diversion.
Director Fernando Eimbcke's casual pacing works well for this story but there are two stylistic elements that draw attention to themselves. Firstly, he cuts to black frames too often for my liking. This is a visual cue for the passage of time and to conjure viewers' imagination during scenes that are communicated by sound effects only (a budgetary compromise, perhaps). It's just that it happens so often that I got tired of looking at a blank screen. My other quibble is an artifact of the cinematography which uses static, wide angle compositions for many of the scenes. The wide lens creates a bulge in the center of the screen and it is plainly noticeable due to the bending of horizontal lines across the image. The warping is not enough to entirely distract from the viewing experience but once you notice it, it's hard to ignore it.
Juan's story is engrossing for the moments of quiet humor and humanity that remind us that we live through adversity with the help of family and friends. The treatment of the supporting characters elevates them from oddballs to significant personalities that change the protagonist's world. The unforced melodrama lets the actors exhibit an honest emotional performance. This surprisingly deep movie is definitely worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Film Movement
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film
* IMDb: Lake Tahoe
* IMDb: Noodles