Fumble, by Craig Schroeder
La playa DC is a film that is hard to review. Not just because it’s not good (which, I’m sad to say, it is not) but because it is a personal and potentially poignant film that is upsettingly flawed. It’s not just “fundamentally” flawed in it’s mechanics or storytelling abilities, the way Tim Tebow’s passing form is fundamentally flawed. Instead, it’s flawed from nearly every aspect, in a way that Tim Tebow would have to break from the huddle carrying a volleyball to compare. And it is quite sad, because La playa DC is a film that has so much potential that can never be taken seriously because of it’s unforgivable imperfections.
Boiled down, La playa DC is a coming of age story of a young man who discovers himself in the midst of dealing with a familial crisis. Where similar films are able to succeed, La playa DC is not. The film’s protagonist is Tomas, a teenager and budding artist, who is approaching manhood in the slums of Bogota, Columbia. He is the middle brother in a family, fractured by the death of the patriarch, killed in the intense violence that has become the norm in Colombia. Tomas’ younger brother, Jairo, is a pre-pubescent drug addict and his older brother, Chaco, is a street hustler who dreams of getting out of Bogota. Jairo, who has been kicked out of his mother’s home by her new, security-guard husband (which, inexplicably, is a profession worthy of mock and scorn in Colombia), goes missing and Tomas ventures into the streets of Bogota to find him. La playa DC is the debut from Colombian director Juan Andres Arango Garcia and, unfortunately, his naivete shows.
It’s clear Garcia, a native of Colombia, has strong convictions on the cultural, political and social milieu of his homeland; but, as a filmmaker, he is still quite callow.
The film is dull and uninspired for long stretches of time. Uninterrupted shots turn already tedious dialogue into a passionless slog. I suspect these long takes were done in an effort to convey realism and tonality, but it’s ultimately as interesting as small-talk conversations between two people waiting in line at the supermarket. In addition, much of the film is shot with a hand-held camera which, in theory, should make the audience feel like they exist with the characters. However, the handheld shots are used as a style substitute when the film starts to drag and creates an uneven tone. The choppy handheld technique seems to signify chaos and disorder when Tomas is sprinting through the streets of Bogota looking for Jairo. But when a similar kind of shot is used when Tomas flirtatiously wanders through the mall with a shopkeeper’s daughter, the use of the handheld camera feels less like an artistic choice and more like a cynical example of style over substance.
Tomas, played by first time actor Luis Carlos Guevara, is a likable character, but his portrayal is flat and hard to relate to. Tomas’ odyssey eventually lands him an apprenticeship at a barbershop, where he is able to put his artistic sensibilities to use, carving elaborate and complicated patterns into the hair of young Bogotanos. Guevara is given a lot to do in the film, but I suspect his actor’s toolbox is quite limited, and he is unable to give Tomas the emotional resonance he needs in some of the more pivotal scenes. The film often asks for a kind of stoic urgency from Tomas; but the script, and Guevara’s performances, are unable to deliver and Tomas, more often than not, just seems disconnected and emotionless.
Tomas meets a plethora of peripheral characters, some interesting, some not, but none are given enough time to develop. Tomas’ mother, the matriarch of a particularly dark-skinned family, remarries a light-skinned suitor. The racial tension between the boys and their stepfather is just under the surface and is one of the more interesting aspects of the film, but is given about as much time as it took to read this sentence. Instead, the stepfather is merely a plot device to make sure Jairo is prohibited from coming home. Like the stepfather, there are a number of characters introduced who seem like they will be of significance to the characters, but are merely lazy plot contrivances.
The standout of the film is James Solis who plays Chaco, Tomas’ older brother. Chaco is a character who has wholeheartedly bought into the life of a street hustler. He has an elaborate wardrobe of tacky clothes inspired by hip-hop trends in America and makes money by washing and polishing hubcaps in the streets of Bogota. He oozes confidence but wants nothing more than to get out of the city and move closer to the coast, where his family migrated from. Chaco is introduced as a kind of one-note character but, by the end of the film, is the most complex of the brothers.
The most maddening flaws, which may not be Garcia’s fault (but made it to the screen, nonetheless) are the numerous typos in the subtitles. The erroneous subtitles aren’t the product of failed translation, they are honest-to-god typos. And there are close to a dozen. When I first noticed a “than” where a “that” should be it was jarring but the benefit of the doubt was on the side of La playa DC. But when “manage” became “mange” and there were full spaces in between letters of the same word and punctuation marks were separated from the word they were meant to punctuate, I found that I was not watching the movie but, instead, wondering how these glaring errors made it into the final cut of the film.
Juan Andres Arango Garcia is a filmmaker with a strong voice. But unfortunately, for La playa DC, the sum of it’s parts are equal to it’s whole: not good. What makes it to screen is a film that is rushed, hollow, and unable to live up to it’s potential.
You misinterpreted Chaco’s aspirations, he does not desire to return to Buenvenatura, on the Pacific coast where he’s from. He desires to return to “the North” as in North America where he was recently deported from. That is where he got his wardrobe from…in the film he has already been to North America and come back to Colombia. Throughout the film he mentions how he left the county because he was discriminated as a Black man, while it had gone better for him in Canada.
It’s been a while now since I originally saw the film, I do remember his aspirations to go back north but if I remember correctly, he shares a moment with Tomas where they both express a desire to get out of the city and to the coast, where they spent their childhood with their family. While he frequently spoke about North America, that always seemed like a persona Chaco was affecting to gain more credibility with his friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he would prefer to be in North America more than his current station in life, but what rang more true to me was both boys desire to live in a place where they can remember some facsimile of a life they had left behind with their father.