Summer is romanticized at nauseam, but for good reason. The days become longer, and after a long winter, you do away with layers while sun rays beam off of your skin. The fine weather pinches you about the time you experienced your first love and causes a knot in your belly, recalling the pain of your first heartbreak. It places you back in your adolescence: a gullible and at times reckless youth.
Dominga Sotomayor’s third feature Too Late to Die Young (Tarde para morir joven) follows the lives of three kids: Sofía (Demian Hernández), Lucas (Antar Machado), and Clara (Magdalena Tótoro). They experience the changes that have, more often that not, been forced on their childhood and adolescence. How they each react to those destabilizing ups-and-downs compels you to invest in these characters and also reflect on your own formative years.
In an interview, Sotomayor acknowledges the complexity of making a film that is partly autobiographical and also so intrinsically tied to memory.
“Now, sometimes it’s difficult for me to separate what was real and what was not real. Memory is so fragile,” Sotomayor said.
Much like the three main characters in the narrative, Sotomayor lived in a close-knit community on a remote location in the woods. Without electricity and moderately far away from Chile’s capital (you could see Santiago’s skyline from a mountain top), the mostly upper-middle-class families partake in most activities together: listening to music, cooking, swimming, ringing in the new year.
The film is set in 1990. Chile was in full transition to democracy after Pinochet’s dictatorship. As director Sotomayor pointed out, she decided not to put so much emphasis on politics, but she places it in the background and gives us subtle hints of Chile’s political climate at the time. Sotomayor wanted to capture the “spirit of Chile’s transition.” A very fitting move on her part.
The political upheaval and vagueness of what the future holds for the nation is a mirror image of the three main characters’ lives. Sotomayor explains that just like the kids were discovering the meaning of their coming-of-age journeys, Chile was being “born again,” the country was going through its own adolescence.
The film’s first frame is intimate. In a tight medium shot, we see Sofía in a car and we then see the car make a couple of stops to pick up Lucas and Clara. It’s all a single, continuous shot made to put the viewer in the moment, to savor every second of a seemingly quotidian activity, but it all matters. Following that there’s a tracking shot of Clara’s dog Frida running after them, It’s in real time and gradually turns into slow motion. Dust and dirt rising up from the ground. Her pants audible to the ear. And we then cut to a small fire in the woods being put out by firefighters.
The trifecta of scenes may not say much narrative-wise (which the film isn’t concerned about anyway), but it definitely sets the tone, mood, and pacing. It informs you that it will be more concerned with evoking the five senses, languish on small moments here and there.
Music plays a major role in the film. The loudness or mellow tunes help to heighten the inner turmoil within, and the tensions between characters. A rock song or a slow ballad compliment and bring a strong bang to the scene.
Despite following three characters closely, the film’s star is Sofía, played by a magnetic Demian Hernández. The actor (who has transitioned since shooting the film), perfectly captures the desperation of escaping a seemingly okay situation. But of course her dissatisfaction is rooted in a thirst for adventure and fulfillment. She wants to fill a void. What void? We don’t know what exactly. All we know is that Sofía is waiting for her mom to visit so that she could go back with her to Santiago. But her mother never shows up and that takes a toll on her. She feels abandoned and unloved.
Another person who feels similar is Lucas, the only boy the film renders a three-dimensional characterization to. He is sweet, understanding, plays the guitar, and is crushing on Sofía. When she shows interest in another young man who drops in every now and then, we see Lucas juggle jealousy and concern. Their friendship is fractured in a way only teenage relations can be: severed after a discovery and not knowing quite well how to confront a newfound sentiment, resorting to internalizing the conflict and thinking it’s one against the world.
Clara (personified by a superb Magdalena Tótoro), who is the youngest of the three, experiences loss of innocence. She’s extremely close to her dog Frida, so when the pet runs away, she feels as if a piece of her has vanished. She goes to great lengths to find her until she does in an underprivileged town. Frida is taken in by a poor family who does not want to do away with her. Finally, the dad accepts money from Clara’s mother and returns Frida. Clara recovers Frida but at a cost: she witnesses the power of money and the destruction it causes.
But the other harsh reality is that the dog does not answer to “Frida” anymore, but to “Cindy,” the new name the underprivileged family uses for her. Not only that, whenever Clara commands her or tries to get close to Frida, she recoils and walks away. Throughout the remaining of the film, Clara struggles to control her dog and keep her close until she realizes that there is no use in forcing her pet to stay and ultimately and heartbreakingly decides drop the leash and lets her go. A close up of Clara’s face says it all—disillusionment, loss, and resignation.
Adolescence is marked by disorientation, constant discovery, and the trials and tribulations of forming an identity. The amalgamation of small, even seemingly dull moments conduce to a greater than life meaning, and that is no different in Too Late to Die Young.
Sotomayor crafts the perfect combination of nostalgia, remembrance, and tribute to adolescence, and contrasted to Chile’s ’90s rebirth, it’s a vivid memoir that is achingly universal. Ambiguity and vagueness sound scary (and they are), but those feelings are part of being young and stepping into adulthood, and that’s alright too.
Too Late To Die Young (Tarde para morir joven) is now playing in select theaters.
Luis Luna is Latino Rebels’ arts writer and associate producer of Latino Rebels Radio. He tweets from @luarmanyc.