Totem: A Movie Review That Will Make You Never Want to Say Goodbye Totem: A Movie Review That Will Make You Never Want to Say Goodbye
Lila Aviles‘s extraordinary family drama Totem is in the vein of party films like Monsoon Wedding and Rachel Getting Married — it throws a warm, tumultuous goodbye party you’ll never want to leave.
Sol’s Story: A Goodbye She Never Wanted
Naíma Sentíes, the first timer who plays seven-year-old Sol in Totem, has the bright, animated face of a kid who can’t help but broadcast whatever she’s feeling in the moment. Over the course of the single day in which Lila Aviles‘s extraordinary family drama unfolds, Sol grapples with something immense that she was already aware of in the abstract but has started to accept as an imminent reality. Her family has gathered in her grandfather Roberto’s (Alberto Amador) house to throw a birthday party for Sol’s artist father, Tona (Mateo Garcia Elizondo), who has cancer.
A Family Divided: Dealing with Grief and Mortality
The celebration is doubling as a goodbye, and you can almost feel the heat coming off of Sol’s head as her brain whirls around the idea of mortality. It’s tough to be a kid who’s losing someone so important to her, though it’s not like any of the adults eddying around Sol are faring much better. Aviles‘ feature debut was 2018’s The Chambermaid, an austere film that tracked a woman’s semi-invisible labor at a luxury hotel in Mexico City. Totem, her follow-up (and Mexico’s Oscar submission), is also set in a single location, but is stylistically very different — a warm, tumultuous ensemble picture that leaves Sol for long stretches to check in on the many people in her orbit.
A Celebration of Life and Love
Tona, though, stays in bed in the shrouded room where his mother also spent her dying days. Played by a skeletal Elizondo, he’s in obvious agony, and is being tended to with heartbreaking care by his nurse Cruz (Dos Estaciones’ Teresita Sánchez). In one of Totem‘s most poignant scenes, Sol confesses to Cruz that sometimes she thinks her father doesn’t love her, because she’s so often turned away from seeing him. But when she does get to visit him, and her mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) returns to join them, we see just how close the trio are in a scene where Tona’s presented with a birthday gift.
A Film That Stays With You
The movie, which was shot by Diego Tenorio, uses long, fluid takes that don’t always follow the action but sometimes linger on observers, and in that sequence, his lens might as well be an embrace as Sol watches her parents together. Totem is as tender with its characters as it is grounded by them, and in 95 minutes, spins out a whole lifetime for its family without relying on exposition, delineating the upper middle class older generation, their freewheeling offspring, and their own children, who absorb much more from the grown-ups in their lives than those grown-ups are always aware of.
The marvel of Totem is that it feels so organic though it’s clearly the result of an enormous amount of preparation and precision, the camera winding its way through crowded spaces to catch the most delicate of interactions. It overflows with love and pain, sometimes both intertwined, and it’s openhearted about death existing alongside life in a way that feels rewardingly mature, even if its protagonist is a child. But the best compliment that can be paid to Totem is that it’s a film that you genuinely don’t want to end. Not just because of what’s waiting for its characters, but because it has the vividness of a bittersweet memory of a party you never actually got to attend.
Totem is a beautifully crafted movie that will stay with you long after you’ve seen it. It’s a must-see for fans of family dramas, and it’s sure to be one of the most talked-about films of the year.