Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has a dependency as well, but we don't like to talk about it.
Bare your body, bare your soul.
Some movies are more draining to watch than others. Perhaps the subject matter is heavy, or the director uses a stylized technique, or the material is presented in a way that requires more from the viewer. In the case of Dependencia sexual (Sexual Dependency) it is all three, occurring simultaneously. This makes it an extraordinarily dense cinematic experience.
Sexual Dependency is unrelenting, dark, and conceptually involved, which is going to please the art house crowd. At the same time it will turn off viewers in search of more conventional, or at least less demanding, fare. The film primarily deals with the first sexual experiences of a handful of teens, and in no case is the experience pleasant. The discomfort level ranges from "let's get this over with" to brutal rape. The interwoven stories have an honesty and vulnerability that prevents them from feeling trite or manipulative, but they are even more affecting because of this.
Director Rodrigo Bellott makes a bold statement by using a practically continuous split-screen effect. The events in one pane may be the same as the other, or tangentially related. They may be from the same perspective or different perspectives. One pane may zoom in or pan in such a way that reveals an important object, glance, or location. At times the images connect to simulate one large image. We viewers cannot merely watch; we must continually contend with a shifting barrage of visual imagery. The effect is intentionally disorienting, though we usually have enough contextual cues to grasp what is happening. There are times when Bellott takes full advantage of his split-screen decision, giving us complementary views that enhance our perception of the movie's themes. There are also times when one or both panes aren't showing anything of note, which makes the split-screen effect seem arbitrary and superficial.
For the technically curious, here is a brief summary. The feature has the digital video look, with several cases of blooming whites and a generally washed-out palette. Edge enhancement goes between noticeable and prominent. The audio track (a mixture of Spanish and English) is sometimes muddy, but doesn't exhibit any show-stopping problems.
Just as the screen is fractured, so is the narrative. The five main plot lines weave in between each other, so that we must continually re-evaluate time, place, and relationships. Bellott gives enough clues to prevent this exercise from becoming too tedious, and the fractured plot does lead to a bunch of "a-ha" moments. But like everything in Sexual Dependency, it demands something extra from the viewer.
As a first-time director, Bellott shows a capable hand. He wrests convincing performances out of people who might otherwise never be actors. He weaves his stories in such a way that we get more out of them. On the other hand, he is perhaps too focused on uncompromised storytelling. He hasn't fully mastered visual language or pacing; two ill-composed views of the same plain scene are not better than one.
Given its title, and the warning that Sexual Dependency features full frontal nudity and graphic sex, you might be expecting something with erotic value. Don't. Though he employs some of the new traditions of Latino filmmaking to great effect, Bellott's film invites stronger comparison to Clark's Kids. One criticism levied against Clark is that his brutally honest, voyeuristic style borders on child pornography. Bellott sidesteps that issue by making the sex scenes relatively chaste. The nudity comes mostly from locker room scenes, while the graphic sex is a particularly unpleasant rape scene.
With the eroticism issue off the table, the film becomes more about internal and external pressures on our sexual lives. This is perhaps the film's greatest achievement. People make sexual decisions based on pressures we can see with our own eyes. A Bolivian girl has an abusive, controlling father, and she has sex to spite him. An out-of-town teen relents to peer demands. The film does a good job of creating and sustaining pressure. Though I've never been to South America, Bellott's cultural eye seems clearly focused. I feel as though I had been right there in the Santa Cruz Burger King, being hassled by the crowd.
Sexual Dependency has some undeniable moments of brilliance, particularly when highlighting the differences between Latino and American cultures. It never quite buckles under the weight of its self-inflicted density. There are moving performances, appropriate music, and the occasional synchronicity of split-screen images. The flip side of the coin is that watching Sexual Dependency is a draining, intrusive, and often unpleasant experience. Bellott has left the gate with a film that proves his artistic integrity; now I'd rather him back off a little and allow us to connect with his stories. But what I want isn't important, so I may someday have to conclude that Bellott isn't my bag. I'd like to watch a few more films from him before reaching that conclusion. For now, although he makes some borderline artistic decisions, we'll call Bellott and Sexual Dependency not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
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