THE STORY – Seven-year-old Sol is spending the day at her grandfather’s home for a surprise party for Sol’s father, Tonatiuh. As daylight fades, Sol comes to understand that her world is about to change dramatically.
THE CAST – Naíma Sentíes, Monserrat Marañon, Marisol Gasé, Saori Gurza & Teresita Sánchez
THE TEAM – Lila Avilés (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
When we first meet seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), she’s a lively little girl, seemingly without a care in the world. Planting herself on the toilet seat of a public restroom — thus forcing her good-natured mother Lucia (Lazua Larios) to pee in the sink — Sol starts her day with some good-natured mother/daughter laughs. Yet as the fun continues in the car, Sol pauses to share her most fervent wish, blurting out, “I wish Daddy didn’t have to die.”
That moment encapsulates the tricky balance of tone that director Lila Avilés impressively pulls off in her second feature film, “Tótem.” While in her debut, Mexico’s 2018 Oscar entry “The Chambermaid,” Avilés’ single central character served as the film’s point of view, in “Tótem,” her focus is instead on an entire family that has gathered together to celebrate the special birthday of Sol’s young father Tona (Mateo García Elizondo) who is suffering from terminal cancer.
To bring her multi-character narrative to life, Avilés takes an Altmanesque approach to the proceedings, with family members flitting in and out of the frame and constantly talking over one another as they plan their big party. Yet, thanks to her intensely character-driven screenplay, we can quickly make out not only the identity of each character but also their place in the family hierarchy.
The fiesta is being thrown by Sol’s aunts Nuri (Montserrat Marañón) and Alejandra (Marisol Gasé), each of whom grieve for their brother in her own separate way. To keep her mind focused, Nuri throws herself into a single task — baking and hand-painting a birthday cake for her brother — but soon becomes so overwhelmed that she turns to alcohol for solace. Alejandra, on the other hand, multitasks—chatting on the phone as she colors her own hair, all while smoking—and deals with her grief by bringing in a quack psychic to cleanse the evil spirits from the house, much to the annoyance of its owner, psychologist, and family patriarch Roberto (Alberto Amador).
Through all of the expertly portrayed family chaos, Avilés never loses sight of the fact that we see these events through Sol’s eyes, often positioning her camera at her height as Sol looks up at all her relatives, desperate to make this party memorable for Tona. What Sol truly wants, however, is the opportunity to see her father, a request that is kindly but firmly denied by Tona’s caretaker Cruz (a terrific Teresa Sanchez who starred in “The Chambermaid”), who tells Sol that he is simply not yet ready to leave his bedroom to see his family.
The fact that Avilés can generate suspense regarding whether Tona will ever leave his room is largely thanks to her skill in capturing his family’s love and concern for him. Though the film immediately drops us into a family of strangers, we can quickly recognize elements in them from our own family get-togethers. The shorthand between siblings that only they understand…the bitten tongues as longtime personal grudges are temporarily put aside…the recognition that, for better or worse, this is the family we have…these are all situations many of us recognize in our own families. So many films try and fail to establish this kind of relatability with an audience, and within mere minutes, Avilés pulls it off with astonishing ease.
Of course, much of the film’s success in communicating that feeling of shared family history can be credited to the chemistry of its cast. As the dynamic sister team, Marañón and Gasé bicker and joke with one another as real siblings, and Larios is powerful as a woman who must attend to her dying husband, all the while shielding her young daughter about the harsher truths about her daddy’s condition. High praise also goes to Elizondo’s Tona for capturing the pain of a man who wants nothing more than to be there for his family but whose body fails him when he needs it most.
There are moments, however, when Avilés’ ambitions get the better of her, such as scenes when more extended family members are added to the mix—who was the guy who brought the pet fish again?—that confuse more than they illuminate. But those distracting moments are relatively few, after which Avilés gets back on track by refocusing on Sentíes’ Sol. In a year filled with exceptional work by young actors, this young actress’s performance as Sol would have to be considered among the best, particularly in her moving scenes when her eyes are opened to the truth after meeting her ailing father.
Though the events in “Tótem” occur within the course of but a single day, not one of its characters are exactly the same at the film’s conclusion as they were when their day began. In uniting together to make what might be the final birthday of a beloved family member the most memorable, Avilés’ characters draw upon something that you rarely see in recent films: genuine kindness. Indeed, no one may have been more affected by those acts of kindness than Sol, who ends her day with her father seeing the truth a bit more clearly. As she stares at the glowing candles on Tona’s birthday cake, she comes to the realization it may well be his last birthday, but her wish still remains the same, and in her eyes, there’s always hope.