Too Late to Die Young: Strange You Never Knew, by David Bax
According to most accounts, Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young takes place in 1990. This is borne out by the use of The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” and a poster of Sinead O’Connor on the protagonist’s wall (though Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” gets a couple of spins four years before its release). The year is crucial to Sotomayor’s design, as it places the events, which take place in the Chilean countryside, immediately after Augusto Pinochet’s reign as President has ended. Those political facts are never invoked, though, and, experientially, it won’t matter to most viewers in which year the film is set. Its human concerns and its aesthetics are universal, transporting us outside of time itself.
Demian Hernández stars as Sofia, a sixteen-year-old who lives with her affectless father in a sort of rural, artist hippie commune. Though we are introduced to Sofia in the midst of an ongoing flirtation with Lucas (Antar Machado), she is soon drawn toward an older man named Ignacio (Matías Oviedo) who has shown up for the commune’s annual New Year’s Eve party. An attraction to a man assumed to have more experience and maturity is not uncommon for girls Sofia’s age but her desire for Ignacio is clearly tied up with her desire to leave the commune and go live with her mother, an aspiring professional singer, in Santiago. Too Late to Die Young is, like so many coming-of-age tales, the story of Sofia not getting what she wants but learning something from it. Few such films are as overwhelming in their grace and empathy as this one, though.
Shot in the au courant 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Too Late to Die Young‘s emotional power is inseparable from that of its aesthetics. Sotomayor and cinematographer Inti Briones exhibit a mastery of their visual approach without appearing schematic or sacrificing naturalism. In fact, naturalism is often the watchword; the commune is largely lacking electricity (unless someone fires up a generator) and the film adopts a mostly warm, tactile palette and density of light. Most of the compositions are deceptively simplistic–occasionally revealing themselves to be more thought out than they first seem when the framing or focus turns out to be anticipating where the shot will end up–but Sotomayor also employs beautiful, gliding subjective shots. These are doled out economically at first, starting with a breathtaking shot of a running dog at the end of the opening scene, but become more frequent as Too Late to Die Young builds toward its quiet crescendo.
Though often resembling an ensemble piece, with extended sequences detailing Sofia’s neighbors as they chat, swim or take care of sick relatives, Hernández is undeniably the star. Deservedly so, as his performance is impeccable. Sofia is often reserved but Hernández vibrates with the potential energy of young actors like Edward Furlong in Terminator 2.
By the end of Too Late to Die Young, we have a pretty good sense for how Sofia feels about her neighbors, how they feel about each other and how they feel about her. But Sotomayor guides us to these understandings organically. There’s little in the way of exposition or backstory but Sotomayor’s trust in her material and her actors makes it unnecessary.
Most of the time spent with this community is lackadaisical. There’s the occasional task to see to, like repairing the hoses that supply them with water. But this is the end of the year and they’re mostly relaxing, having a good time, entertaining each other with songs played on varying instruments to varying degrees of success. Still, Sofia isn’t the only one with anxieties weighing her down. For all of the movie’s looseness, a heaviness pervades. That friction between the beauty of the moment and the crush of the future is a dull, grinding conflict every human being knows and Sotomayor’s uncanny ability to tap into it is what elevates Too Late to Die Young to the level of the sublime.