Home Video Hovel: The Empty Hours, by Aaron Pinkston
In the opening scene of Aarón Fernández Lesur’s The Empty Hours (Las Horas Muertas), seventeen-year-old Sebastian is being shown around a slightly rundown motel by his uncle, the manager. Health problems have caused the manager to step away from his business, so he’s hired Sebastian to look after the motel during the day. At the end of his orientation, Sebastian (and, therefore, the viewer) is told that the most important quality in a motel manager is discretion — patrons come to the motel for many reasons and some may not be entirely appropriate out in the open. This has to be a safe space, otherwise what business would be left? This sentiment, of course, proves to be the major concept of The Empty Hours, as Sebastian becomes linked with Miranda, an older woman who frequents the motel to have sexual encounters.
Through the first half of the film, Miranda and Sebastian have only had one direct encounter, a brief conversation speculating on the activities of another couple who have taken a room. To Sebastian, it’s not a secret why Miranda so often visits the motel, and he altogether doesn’t seem to mind, though he has a clear interest in the beautiful woman. The Empty Hours builds both characters through their relatively boring lives — his life stuck working at the motel and her at her unsuccessful real estate job — before it fully introduces their relationship. Each day, as she impatiently waits for her unpunctual lover, the two spend more time together, laughing at the interesting deviants around them. Though one may want a little more plot, this ends up being a smart approach by the time they inevitably come closer together. We begin to care for both of these characters individually, which helps their impromptu and unconventional relationship feel more fully realized.
Typically, a film with a seventeen-year-old at the center falls into the trappings of the coming-of-age drama, but somehow The Empty Hours avoids them. Still, Sebastian does experience many of the familiar plot points of the genre and he unquestionably grows by the end of the film — even the idea of his summer of adult labor seems like an obvious trope. The Empty Hours is able to break away, however, because of its tone. Even though the film is explicitly about sex, with the prospect of this young kid having his first sexual experience with an older woman, it doesn’t go for lesson-learning sentimentality. There is ultimately too much melancholy in The Empty Hours to feel sentimental.
It also helps that the film is as much about Miranda as it is about Sebastian, a helplessly sad woman whose vibrant sex life is finally becoming emotionally draining. Coming-of-age tales are supposed to focus on the young man, with his exploits being nothing more than lessons. Miranda strangely becomes the heart in much of the film, which even ends with an emotional beat from her perspective. Like Sebastian, she’s not an unfamiliar character, but actress Adriana Paz blends the sexuality and sadness in a very good performance.
The Empty Hours takes on an increasingly tired genre from a new cultural perspective and strips it down to the essentials — two fully developed characters and the minimum amount of appreciable plot. The results don’t exactly transcend it, but this is a very well told and shot story about love and characters at the most important moments of their lives.