Monday, February 14, 2011

Family Dinner: We Are What We Are

Call them sullen and sullener. It is not surprising brothers Alfredo and Julián have issues, considering their extreme family environment. Their father has a taste for prostitutes. As a result, they have no doubt eaten quite a few themselves in Jorge Michel Grau’s grisly social commentary We Are What We Are (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The sensitive Alfredo is the eldest son of a family of Mexico City cannibals. His father is a reprobate who wastes whatever money he earns fixing watches on prostitutes. At least he has always brought home fresh victims for their cannibalistic “rituals.” Unfortunately, that reckless lifestyle catches up to dear old dad, as he fatally coughs up his guts in the film’s disconcerting early scenes. This leaves a power vacuum within the family. However, they have a more pressing need: fresh meat for the next ritual. (Evidently, simply buying some raw hamburger at the store is out of the question.)

In truth, the warped family dynamics of WAWWA are nearly as harrowing as the cannibalism. The shrewish mother has made everyone miserable with her jealousy and resentments. Brother Julián has major anger management issues. By contrast, Alfredo is a classic case of an under-developed personality, who may or may not be a closeted homosexual. Keep your eye on sister Sabina, though. She is a master manipulator.

Grau viscerally conveys the abject meanness of the family’s circumstances as well as the predatory corruption of contemporary Mexico, without ameliorating the horror of what the family does. Indeed, Grau’s angry depiction of lazy, venal cops feels a bit tacked on compared to the deeply disturbed and disturbing family drama. In fact, the class consciousness is rather clumsy at times, but the macabre and claustrophobic atmosphere of the family home, brimming with ticking clocks perfect for getting under one’s skin (courtesy of design team Aleajandro García and Sandra Flores), keeps the film on its genre track.

Paulina Gaitán is scary good as Sabina. As Alfredo, Francisco Barreiro’s slow burn is quite slow indeed, but he still has some effective moments, whereas Alan Chávez brings a real “angry young cannibal” presence to the screen as Julián.

While Grau starts WAWWA at a deliberate art-house pace, he subtly cranks up the tension, steadily pulling viewers into this dark and remorseless world. Grungy and twisted, is one of the creepier indie genre films of the year. Most definitely not to all tastes, it never shies away from its subject matter. Recommended for the bold, it opens this Friday (1/18) in New York at the IFC Center.