Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Pilar Palemoro
Writer: Pilar Palemoro
Stars: Carla Quilez, Angela Cervantes
By Calum Cooper
Pilar Palomero’s “La Maternal” (2023) has drawn understandable comparisons to Jason Reitman’s “Juno” (2007). Both have similar topics, yet their approaches could not be more different. While “Juno” is more light-hearted and comedic, “La Maternal” is more solemn, even melancholic. As one childhood is born, another is lost. That’s what makes the film such a tender experience.
The premise: Carla (Carla Quilez) is a delinquent 14-year-old with a strenuous relationship with her single mother Penelope (Angela Cervantes). She spends most of her time skipping school, playing football and vandalizing others’ property, often alongside her best friend Efrain (Jordan Cornejo). All that changes when Carla falls pregnant. The social services take her away from her mother and best friend, putting her up in a foster home where the carers – named tutors – offer to help her with this gargantuan adjustment in life.
Carla occupies an impoverished, overtly unforgiving world – perhaps the very thing that causes her to lash out so frequently. The skies are often grey and the cinematography by Julian Elizalde captures the sheer emptiness of both pastimes and opportunity in the landscape of this film. The utilisation of long takes suggests how heavy these things – from the initial aimlessness to the earth shattering change of teenage pregnancy – weigh on the minds of those who occupy this environment. Although the thematic power of the visuals are subtle, when registered, they add so much power to the narrative.
“While some of the best movies can be vehicles for escapism, a lot of the other best movies can reflect deep truths within the human experience. “La Maternal” does the latter with such earnestness and love for its characters that it left this reviewer completely mesmerised.”
Palomero’s script has a delicate intimacy in regards to its characters and the hardships they are faced with. Carla is thrust into adulthood prematurely by her pregnancy. Her new foster home is occupied entirely by young single mothers who would have been raising their babies on their own if not for the assistance of the foster home. Carla is surrounded by the impending responsibilities that she knows she’s going to have to take on once her child is born. That she doesn’t have the best groundwork to go off of – owing to her own fractured relationship with her mother – only adds to her anxiety. The compassionate direction and evocative camerawork – consisting of close ups and long takes – is simultaneously reassuring and nerve wrecking as Carla’s childhood slips away.
It is in the second half of the film – when Carla gives birth and begins to look after her child in full – that “La Maternal” truly soars. The film’s conflict, and resounding empathy, comes from the fact that Carla is not an adult, but is experiencing changes and obligations that even adults thrice her age can struggle with. Young Carla Quilez gives a miraculous performance in service to this. It is astonishing how she uses the smallest changes in expression to convey the inner turmoil of her character. The way she goes from carefree, even reckless, in the film’s opening, to frustrated with her child’s needs to openly distraught with fear that her child may not love her is nothing short of captivating. Her scenes opposite Cervantes, whose character is on her own journey of growth, are tremendously compelling.
Add it all up and the film becomes an ode to the joys and sacrifices that make motherhood such an idiosyncratic experience that so many women go through. This especially comes to the forefront as Carla and Penelope begin to reconnect as Carla’s desires to be a good mother despite the odds threaten to completely overwhelm her. The title literally translates to motherhood, and the film showcases the experience of this unveiled. Raising a child, especially when you yourself are not complete or prepared, can be the most rewarding and the most difficult thing one can do. By refusing to sugarcoat this, while not being bereft of hope either, the film becomes an emotional rollercoaster that captures the essence of the human spirit with nuance and power to spare.
Pilar Palemora has made something truly remarkable with “La Maternal”. Whatever faults the film may have regarding the odd pacing issue is easily forgiven due to the impeccable characters, stellar craftsmanship, sharp writing and hard-hitting themes that it dabbles in. While some of the best movies can be vehicles for escapism, a lot of the other best movies can reflect deep truths within the human experience. “La Maternal” does the latter with such earnestness and love for its characters that it left this reviewer completely mesmerised. Palemoro’s previous film “Schoolgirls” (2020) also explored transitions in life. Whether she chooses to keep exploring this avenue in future films or not, she is one filmmaker that international audiences should watch out for.
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