That Tender Age
By Tayler Montague

NYFF 2018:
Too Late to Die Young
Dir. Dominga Sotomayor, Chile, KimStim

Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young dramatizes what it’s like to come of age in seclusion from the larger world. The film chronicles the day-to-day lives of a family living in a wooded commune on the fringes of Santiago in Chile. Though it’s not made explicit, they are constructing identities for themselves in the shadows of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The brilliance of the film is in its show-and-not-tell ethos; the history reverberating beneath the narrative speaks to characters striving for democracy and freedom, or some semblance of them.

The complexity of youth is a recurring theme in the work of the Chilean filmmaker. This is Sotomayor’s third feature, and the second in an oeuvre that explores the fragility of what it means to grow up amidst familial conflict (in Thursday Till Sunday, the possibility of one’s parents separating) and to reconcile this internally. She’s described Too Late to Die Young as semi-autobiographical, having similarly grown up on a commune on the outskirts of the capital in the early 1990s. The palpable authenticity of the portrayal of this place in time is one of the film’s greatest attributes.

When discussing the process of making Too Late to Die Young in an interview for Film Comment, she says, “I wanted to go to the set every day just with one sheet of notes, just some ideas, not with a script. To work by looking at real life and not with a text in my mind . . . The goal of the film was to work on dispersion, to search for new forms. A bit like when a child looks at the world, without clear concepts, without definitions. Something pure.” By taking this approach, she’s able to craft a film that doesn’t feel beholden to any conventions. Instead, it unfolds at its own pace, never taking on a distinct rhythm but holding the viewer by leaning into the universality of its feelings. We have all loved and lost or longed for more, and these experiences connect us to the characters’ lives more than any “plot” could.

Sotomayor’s meditative gaze communicates an intimacy typically reserved for home videos. The people who populate nearly every corner of her frame don’t feel like characters, they’re simply living, and Sotomayor is allowing us to look. Her dexterity as a filmmaker is most apparent in the compelling lack of urgency shown by her actors. They peel potatoes, they dance, they build and plow. Their only major effort is to plan for their New Year’s Eve party, make sure they have fresh water, and love one another the best they know how.

Our points of entry into this place are Lucas, Clara, and Sofia. Lucas (Antar Mochado) and Sofia (Demian Hernandez) are both 16, at the height of teenage angst. They grew up on the commune together, and seem sort of a couple, though the intimate moments between them are sparse, their relationship a byproduct of proximity rather than mutual undying love. Clara is younger, a pre-teen, and she occupies herself by hanging out with Sofia’s brother and their gang of friends, swimming and eating watermelon and playing with her dog Frida. We spend most of our time observing Sofia: her fraught relationship with her father, her existential contemplations of self, and her pouty discontent serve as anchors for the narrative (a term to be used loosely here). There’s also a thread charting the romantic coupling between Sofia and Ignacio, the more experienced older man who will inevitably break her heart—though she will rise from the ashes empowered, a rite of passage to womanhood. Their romance is never shown in an archetypical fashion: there’s no sweeping violin music when she first kisses Ignacio, which takes place in a cramped jeep. Having one’s first forays into love in such a confined, secret space speaks to her lack of privacy and how encroached upon even the most intimate moments can feel in such a small community.

Sofia’s unsure nature is best exemplified in a scene in which she’s smoking a cigarette with Elena (Antonia Zegers), who isn’t her parent but might as well be. Elena is Lucas’s mom, but lends maternal advice to Sofia, who’s being raised by her father. Elena’s taking long drags, a seasoned experience smoker, and warning against pregnancy; Sofia takes small pathetic puffs, not quite inhaling—smoking for her is less about dependency and more about rebellion. When earlier in the film her father asks her to put her cigarette out, she responds, “I’m a smoker, it’s not from time to time. I smoke. I’m addicted already. End of discussion.” Such moments of defiance become a defining characteristic of their relationship.

Sofia’s quiet resentment only begins to grow. The feeling of being a big fish in a small pond is universal when you’re a teenager seeking to experience the world, but even more so when your world is so insular. Her absentee mother and Ignacio stand in for an idea of freedom, one she doesn’t quite understand yet. She desires to move in with her Mom, to get off the commune once and for all. Except her mother never told her she was coming to save her in the first place. Hernandez’s ability to convey so much in the eyes works most effectively in these moments of yearning and conflict, when she’s searching her father’s face for answers or even a reaction to the revelation that she wants to leave. He tells her to go, not giving her the fight she so desperately desires.

Sotomayor contrasts the barely suppressed longing of each character with her portrayal of this place where they’ve all spent their lives. Despite being cut off, these are not deprived people. They throw pool parties; the kids have toys. They don’t mope or talk about being dissatisfied. When Clara loses her dog, her mother pays a poor woman for a lookalike. This not only upsets the seller’s daughter, who rightfully owns the dog in the first place, but the entire neighborhood they’re essentially stealing from. Ultimately, this display of power serves as a reminder that they too participate in the ugliness of the world they try to avoid, if on a different scale. It becomes increasingly obvious that they are not immune to outside dangers. Over the course of the film, we see fleeting instances of robbery and cheating, and there’s a general inability for the community to come to a consensus on things that benefit the greater good. One of the clearest examples of living democratically is when they vote on whether the commune should have electricity. After years of rallying for it, those same people no longer want it.

The New Year’s Eve celebration toward which the film points is filled with music and performance, the elders encouraging their children and friends to write songs and rehearse for the show. Sofia’s father creates instruments, her mother’s a prominent singer. These aren’t naïve people tapping into their inner artists; they’re living a form of cultural preservation. The creative process is vital to their survival, and we come to realize such creativity may have not been able to thrive out in the open in Pinochet’s Chile.

Initially, it is not made clear to the viewer that we are watching a period piece. There aren’t any real distinct markers or mentions of date. Their old gadgets and style of dress seem like byproducts of their chosen lifestyle. The feelings depicted onscreen transcend time. What we know for sure: freedom doesn’t come without consequence. The New Year brings about a shift in everyone’s lives, specifically Lucas, Clara, and Sofia. And in the midst of reconciliation, their utopia goes up in flames.