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Father's Shadow, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A somewhat magical take on a child's grief."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Father's Shadow" is the second film from Gabriela Amaral as writer/director and it's more or less what one would hope for in a second feature: It's got the style and intensity that makes it a piece with "Friendly Beast" but a story that is not any sort of repetition and the confidence to try something more emotionally ambitious. That "has she made anything else/oh I liked that/and this is even better" hit is one of the best parts of going to festivals or immersing oneself in less-heralded films long-term.

It's the story of Dalva (Nina Medeiros), a quiet ten-year-old girl in a small town whose mother has recently passed away and whose father Jorge (Julio Machado) is crumbling. Aunt Cristina (Luciana Paes) has been attempting to fill the gap, but her fiancé Elton (Rafael Raposo) is moving to the city and wants her to come along. Before leaving, she teaches Dalva some traditional magic, but it's not always of practical use as she tries to raise herself and look after her father.

It's immediately obvious that this film is going to live and die by how well the audience can connect with Dalva. That's no slight on the work Julio Macado and Luciana Paes do as the rest of her family - they impress - but it's clear right away that their jobs are to establish the child's environment as much as tell their own story. Happily, the young actress in this movie, Nina Medeiros, is genuinely amazing, and even if it's just a matter of casting the girl who could best give the movie what it needs most of the time - a skinny body seemingly about to collapse under the weight on the family stress put upon her hiding eyes that indicate almost frightening intensity - getting the right amount and focus in any given scene is no small thing. She's great and delivers exactly what the movie needs at every moment even when silent. It's a tense little performance that convinces the audience that anything is possible for Dalva, from collapse to genuine sorcery.

It's kind of a slow burn otherwise, the daughter kind of waiting and watching while the father spirals deeper into despair, seeing a lousy world claim everyone around him and feeling powerless to do anything about it. There are other characters floating around them, with intersecting issues of their own, helping make her problems uniquely her own even as they also reflect a greater malaise. Amaral lets important things happen off-screen in a way that's actually quite useful - it is, for instance, genuinely tricky to know if Dalva's aunt Cristina and her boyfriend Elton are really stable enough to take her in, even as her father Jorge seems to be falling apart, while the way he interacts with his co-workers and the various local officials hints at a complicated and imperfect life without ever ruling him out as a suitable father. Dalva is at the center of her world, but that world expands well beyond the edges of the screen.

The film is nicely spooky as well, though that's not exactly the prime focus for long stretches. The bits which indicate something in this world isn't quite right are suitably unnerving, especially one where a kid thinking she can do magic reveals as much as anything actually supernatural, a nasty little current on how the minds and souls of kids that age are still gelling in some ways. And if the end is a bit more pure fantasy than the rest, it certainly does not feel unearned, especially since the filmmakers are able to put together images that captivate while never straying far from the close-to-earth life this family is living.

It's a delightful discovery and one that obviously has me excited to see what Amaral does next. In some ways, "The Father's Shadow" is smaller and harder to fit in a slot as easily as her first feature, but also a step forward and a great place to start for those interested in an up-and-coming Brazilian filmmaker but not so much in the genre film she started with.

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originally posted: 04/20/20 09:42:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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