‘August Evening’: A Repressed Family in the Land of the Free
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Suspended between the lyrical and the gritty, “August Evening,” which opens in the city on Friday, aspires to a kind of ambient eloquence, one in which everyday vistas and incidental moments acquire the clarity of insight. At least, that’s how it appears to work for the characters, members of a Mexican family living north of the border and struggling with difficult transitions as they stall at their various personal crossroads.
Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) is a handsomely gray 60-something laborer who is first glimpsed sorting eggs in a chicken farm. The opening sequence, which emphasizes the visceral nastiness that underpins every American breakfast and fast-food meal, is effectively detailed by director Chris Eska’s agile handheld camera, a device that works with purpose in focused instances in which the film resembles an existential tone poem. Otherwise, it’s a distraction that only makes one wonder why so many recent movies with Mexican themes insist on the shaky cam. Do we need a remake of “Amores Perros” every year? Does prompting a need to ingest Dramamine convey a greater sense of emotional truth?
More genuine veritas is present in Mr. Castaneda’s face, which has a rough-hewn integrity that can’t be replicated by middling gimmicks. His Jaime may be a rugged working man, but he’s nearing the end of his days as a viable hired hand. The death of his wife, Maria (Raquel Gavia), has left him only a daughter-in-law, Lupe (Veronica Loren). They share a mutual and pervasive sense of loss, as Manuel (Richard Moreno), Lupe’s husband and one of Jaime’s three adult children, has also recently died.
Circumstances compel the pair to abandon their home in the countryside and seek out family in the city. At first, Jaime and Lupe settle in with Victor (Abel Becerra), Jaime’s son. But Victor’s apartment is cramped, his wife resentful, and, as it happens, his guests aren’t too adept at watching the children. Moreover, Victor is unemployed. While the unexpected visit offers a chance for reconciliation between the prodigal son and his father, who is upset to learn he has a grandson he never met, it mostly establishes that Victor’s situation is as precarious as Jaime’s.
As Mr. Eska’s story slowly develops, a would-be romantic interest is introduced for Lupe in the person of Luis (Walter Perez), a quiet and persistent young man who hails from the same Mexican village. She is cool to his flirtations, which include offerings of select cuts of beef as a gift. But when a seeming crisis dispatches them on Luis’s motorbike to a neon-lit fairground, Lupe gives in to the moment and something flickers. As their options fade along with the patience of Victor’s wife, as well as that of Jaime’s assimilated, suburban, English-speaking daughter Alice (Sandra Rios), Luis’s persistence and generosity begin to signal something desirable. The question is whether Lupe can relinquish her role as Jaime’s caretaker and surrogate daughter, give up the ghost of her late husband, and take a leap.
Once his camera steadies, Mr. Eska draws deeply on the resources of his cast, giving the actors ample room to breathe and often pulling back from intimate framing to show individuals isolated against the broad night sky or seemingly discarded on run-down street corners. The sense of living on the margins in the land of opportunity is evoked without jargon or polemics, and best captured in the stoic banter between Jaime and an old friend he bumps into at the racetrack. If Texas belonged to Mexico, things would be very different, he muses. But would they really want American kids cooking their dinners? Probably not.
Such interludes give “August Evening” its melancholy, if sweet-natured, spirit. If the narrative arc feels a bit listless at times, like an afternoon drifting away under an oppressive sun, the psychological temperature feels honest.