Coming down from the Saturday sugar rush of his 2006 comedy Duck Season, Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke’s lovely, Yucatán-set dramedy drifts by on a similar deadpan wave of static vignettes and lingering pauses that must be 10 months pregnant. Eimbcke’s droll rhythms are reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki—here stylistically appropriate for a film about social and emotional inertia. After downcast teen Juan (Diego Cataño) crashes the family Nissan into a telephone pole—the accident heard but not seen until after impact—he somberly ambles across the expansive, solitary desert in search of a needed auto part. He seeks help from a mistrustful old mechanic who shares behavior with his oddly anthropomorphic dog, a too-young mother with punk-rock ambitions, and a martial arts obsessive more interested in Shaolin badasses than in fixing cars. Through Juan’s encounters with such eccentrics, and eventually his own family, the reasons for his melancholy emerge—waves of heartbreak in what appear to be calm waters.
There’s imported-film minimalism, and then there’s this: Fernando Eimbcke’s feature debut, Duck Season, a daringly banal comedy of ennui set almost entirely in a middle-class Tlatelolco flat. Knocking them dead at festivals and at the Mexican Ariel Awards, where it enjoyed a Ben Hur–like sweep, Eimbcke’s movie could become the couch potato nation’s anthem film, if only Gen-Xbox could sit through it. As the title suggests, certainly inadvertently, we’re in the land of narrative reductivism, where time is only something to be killed and conversations are as empty as a Bugs-Daffy tit for tat, but without the aptitude for comic attack and with plenty of silent downtime. Wait, as I did, for an “Elmer Season” fillip in vain.
The conscientious depletion of story is both the movie’s modus operandi and the probable cause of its refreshed-festgoer hosannas. Two Mexican ‘tweens, Moko (Diego Cataño) and Flama (Daniel Miranda), see Flama’s harried mother off on a Sunday and settle in for a spacious afternoon of Halo and Coke. A 16-year-old neighbor girl named Rita (Danny Perea) begs to use the apartment’s oven. Thumb, thumb, beep, beep, “kill you, asshole,” “then kill me, faggot.” It’s Stranger Than Paradise for gamers—until the power goes out. After one of Duck Season‘s many slouchy longueurs and a pizza order, the first sign of tension is the delivery guy’s race through traffic and hump up the elevator-less building’s stairs within his 30-minutes-or-it’s-free window. Of course, whether he (Enrique Arreola) succeeds or not is a matter of dispute, so he loiters, and succumbs, when the power is briefly restored, to the challenge of playing for the money with video soccer.
Jim Jarmusch’s seminal 1984 film had a similar fondness for dead brains going deader on sofa cushions, but Paradise had a formal humor and an existentialist chilliness that filled the movie’s empty well like rainwater. Eimbcke’s film is a relative bagatelle, hunting for mild hints of comedy and wackiness amid the torpor. Brief moments are gag-scored with quasi-merengue and rock but then abandoned. Rita enlists Moko in her free-form baking debacle, Flama and Ulises the deliveryman squabble, and eventually Eimbcke relents in his dedication to the space’s four walls and provides Ulises with fragmented flashbacks to his previous job as a dog pound attendant. A soulful equanimity is found in regards to the pizza payment, and it is revealed that Rita is baking herself a birthday cake because her family forgot. Eimbcke resists the ordinary teen-com reflexes, but then Rita and Moko experiment with French kissing, and Rita’s second baking experiment produces pot brownies —a natural lubricant the filmmaker wastes on a musical interlude.
Shot in silvery black-and-white, Duck Season is not charmless, just insubstantial. The smoldering crisis in Flama’s home—his parents are waist-deep in a bitter divorce—takes center stage, providing the viewer’s famished consciousness with some shreds of narrative red meat, but it’s also where the movie becomes sodden and trite. Only Perea’s Rita, nursing a hidden psychic bruise and ranting against blonde favoritism, is a robust enough character, and only Perea handles the meaningless moments with complete confidence. But the movie accumulates a sneaky affection anyway; you grow fond of it like you can of a dull tourist spot, or a relative’s kitschy home you never wanted to visit but remember warmly now. No 14-year-old I’ve ever met, however, will opt for it over a good shooter.