Juan Andrés Arango's La Playa D.C. is a familiar tale wrapped in different packaging, we could say, which speaks to the commonly-held belief that, once you strip away what lies at the surface of any work of film art, and get to its core, you'll find themes that are universal.
Of course I knew that already; I preach that on this site regularly; However, at times, as a writer who thinks and writes critically about cinema, I often fall into the habit of intellectualizing what I see, instead of just responding viscerally.
The film centers on Tomas, an Afro-Colombian teenager struggling with the difficulties of growing up in a city (Bogota) of exclusion and racism against those who look like him; When his younger brother disappears, Tomas is forced to leave his home to look for him. With the help from his older brother Chaco, Tomas roams the city's streets, as his search becomes more of a journey in which he's forced to face his past, and to leave aside the influence of his brothers in order to find his own identity, all with the vibrancy and instability of a city in flux, as the film's backdrop.
Essentially, a young back man who simply will not allow himself to become yet another statistic, in a society in which the odds are stacked against him. A familiar story that I'm sure we've seen in a few films that center on the lives of African American men - or at least, an idea that you've probably heard spoken by others, or have spoken yourself.
It's what I'd call a quiet, though engaging, melancholic, stylized piece of cinema from the first-time feature writer/director from Colombia, with its bare, yet hypnotic cinematography - wonderful use of Bogota's geography, evocatively shot in a mesh of blues, greens and grays.
But La Playa D.C. isn't all style with no substance. There's a solid story in there - a straightforward narrative that takes its time developing, and doesn't exactly scream its arrival.
Arango fully embraces the age-old "show don't tell" mantra of classical filmmaking.
This is a Colombia that we rarely ever get to see on film - one comprised primarily of people of African descent; its gritty, mean streets, have an almost dreamlike quality to them; it's peaceful, despite the perceived harshness in the narrative that plays out on screen, as mostly working-class black men and women, with the weight of oppression on their backs, fed up and frustrated with the lot life has dealt them, resolve to do what they deem necessary for their own fulfillment, and that of others of significance to them; armed and eventually dangerous.
A rueful parable about fear and freedom that shares thematic similarities to other African Diaspora films - for example, the well-documented lure of the big city, dreams deferred, and more.
Its young leads, representative of generations of hungry dreamers, alienated, seeking refuge in pockets, who imagine a freedom that's far from the streets of their current individual predicaments.
This isn’t a conventional film by any means, and I think anyone going into it should be fully aware of that fact. It is the film's style that helps define it, and its strongest appeal. An acquired taste, I appreciate what I see are the filmmaker's attempts to disrupt the expected order of things. They may not even be conscious attempts - Arango doesn't come off as just some pretentious auteur.
Its low-key, documentary-style won't appeal to many, but I think it has an audience who'd appreciate the education the film provides, and who love to be challenged.
It should also help to secure director Arango as a talent to watch... and we will be watching, certainly.
The coming-of-age drama competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and was well-received by critics, calling it a bold directorial effort from Arango, the 35-year-old native-born Colombian, who trained and worked in Canada and the Netherlands before returning home to shoot his debut feature.
Luis Carlos Guevara stars as Tomas, Andrés Murillo plays younger brother Jairo, and Jairo James Solis plays older brother Chaco.
The film was acquired for distribution by ArtMattan in December, and is getting a special one-week theatrical run here in NYC, starting this Friday, at the Rerun Theatre in Brooklyn (147 Front St ), from July 19 to 25.
Here's a trailer and poster for La Playa D.C.: