By Devika Girish
This month’s picks include a Spanish drama starring Penélope Cruz, a campy French feminist comedy, a ’90s-set coming-of-age film from the Philippines and more.
The debut feature by Haitian Canadian director Miryam Charles opens with a series of flickering tropical images — a bright orange house nestled among verdant green hills; a chair in a living room, streaked by a golden sun — that dissolve into rain-streaked glimpses of the streets of New England. On the soundtrack, a hushed voice whispers in French about the possibility of a “fluid journey through time and space,” inducting us into what some might consider a séance, and others, a movie.
The specter haunting the dreamlike “Cette Maison” is the mysterious death of Charles’ 14-year-old cousin, Tessa, in Connecticut in 2008. She was found hanged in her room, and an autopsy revealed signs of violent assault, but the case was never solved. Around that open wound, Charles builds a speculative fable that weaves between Haiti, Connecticut and Quebec, where the filmmaker grew up. In staged, theatrical tableaux, actors enact the circumstances of Tessa’s death and its aftermath; the gaps in the story are filled in by imagined scenes of the life Tessa could have lived, in Haiti or the United States. This play with memory and longing opens into broader, poetic reflections on immigrant life. As Charles dramatizes the night of Quebec’s 1995 referendum on whether or not to separate from Canada, in which a yes vote might have caused her family to move to Connecticut, “Cette Maison” considers the predicament of being born in one home and dying in another; of leaving in search of new futures only to have them cut brutally short. (Stream it on the Criterion Channel.)
‘On the Fringe’
A towering Penélope Cruz stars in this Spanish drama, directed by Juan Diego Botto, about how states fail their most vulnerable citizens — and how people have to pick up the slack by binding together. Three distinct narratives braid together as the movie unfolds at breakneck speed. Rafa (Luis Tosar), a lawyer, is trying to balance obligations to his pregnant wife, his stepson and an Arab woman whose daughter has been taken in by social services. Azucena (Cruz) is a young mother desperately fighting an eviction order with the help of a grassroots activist group. And Germán (Font Garcia), a daily-wage laborer, struggles to make ends meet while his estranged mother faces a foreclosure order.
Weaving through these strands in a frenetic, hand-held style, “On the Fringe” evokes the precarity of the lives of the poor: One wrong move or one missed bill could land them on the streets, in jail, or separated from their families. The film rushes forth like a thriller, but each scene, each conversation, is freighted with ethical dilemmas. Can one be a good family man and a good activist? Is it worth it to fight losing battles as a matter of principle? The film has no easy answers, no happy endings, but its stirring visions of solidarity attest to a simple truth: At the end of the day, all we have is each other. (Stream it on Netflix.)
‘How to Be a Good Wife’
The year is 1968; the setting, France. In Paris, revolution rages through the streets, led by feminists, workers and student activists calling for change. In the northeastern region of Alsace, however, the prim Paulette Van der Beck (Juliette Binoche) presides over a bastion for the patriarchy: an academy for homemakers. With help from her spoiled husband, her kooky sister-in-law and a comically righteous nun, Paulette teaches young women the keys to being a good wife: obedience, discretion, economy, tolerance for mediocre sex. Until an unexpected accident — so deliciously campy that I dare not spoil it — rocks the foundation of the school, unleashing the long-repressed desires of the students and teachers alike.
Martin Provost’s rollicking dramedy may not be for anyone seeking a lesson on French history or feminism, but boy, is it a good time. Binoche is superbly entertaining as she first trills and shrills on the ways of proper womanhood, and then starts to relish the taste of new freedoms, like wearing trousers. Come for her and stay for the film’s uproarious climax, in which the plot’s various high jinks snowball into a dance number about women’s empowerment. (Stream it on Ovid.)
‘Death of Nintendo’
Raya Martin’s charming teen comedy is a candy-coated blast from the Philippines’ past — a movie decked out in period references and misted with ’90s nostalgia. History frames the misadventures of the kids at the heart of “Death of Nintendo,” which is set in the months leading up to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, then the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Throughout the film, the characters practice duck-and-cover drills, bemoan quake-induced blackouts and marvel at ash showers. But the rumblings of history are no match for the petty little struggles of adolescence.
Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.), the smothered son of a wealthy, Catholic single mother, has all the fancy new video games and brand-name sneakers but little freedom. His working-class friend Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) has no money but has enough swagger to make up the difference. And the middle-class Gilligan (Jigger Sementilla) and his sister, Mimaw (Kim Oquendo), try to figure out their identities while caring for a mother recently spurned by a cheating father. The answer to all their problems, the guys decide (with Mimaw exasperatedly following along), is to get circumcised by a village doctor. As they build up to this quest, Martin sprinkles the film with ’90s references — songs, comic books, toys, myths — that conjure a specific cultural moment, though his portrait of the travails of growing up feels endearingly universal. (Stream it on Mubi.)
‘Days of the Whale’
Roving through the graffiti-flecked streets of Medellín, Colombia, Catalina Arroyave Restrepo’s feature is a vibrant portrait of both the malaise and the endless imagination of youth. The film follows two punk artists, the well-to-do Cristina (Laura Tobón) and the working-class Simon (David Escallón), who belong to a local collective aiming to provoke social change through street art. As their friendship blossoms into love, their milieu, and their differences in circumstance, start to encroach on their relationship.
A piece of graffiti triggers a rivalry with a local gang that Simon is embroiled with; Cristina, meanwhile, clashes with her father and his young wife, and longs for her mother, an investigative journalist who had to flee to Spain to escape retribution from gangs. “Days of the Whale” ebbs and flows like a river, capturing the sense of stalled time that afflicts young people in Colombia, and also the beauty they’re capable of creating amid violence. A sudden glimpse of the titular animal — which is supposed to have mysteriously appeared in Medellín’s canals — stuns in the midst of a gray city; it becomes the inspiration for the protagonists’ art, which seeks magic and possibility in a grim everyday. (Stream it on HBO Max.)