Off-roading in a sand dune located outside Lima with a borrowed car, Carlos (Gonzalo Molina) only cares about whether or not his two daughters, in the back seat, are having a good time. He won’t admit it, but this jack of all trades — and definitely master of none — doesn’t have much to offer them in the way of financial or home stability. Carlos’ only contribution are the memories he hopes will evoke a positive image of him in the future.
Therein lies the emotional crux of Swiss-Peruvian director Klaudia Reynicke’s poignantly subdued period drama “Reinas,” Spanish for “queens” and the way Carlos refers to his girls. Set in 1992, against the backdrop of social unrest and economic collapse in Peru — when the national currency has devalued greatly, and the insurgent organization Shining Path continues to carry out attacks — the narrative grapples with how two separated parents, neither of them ill-intentioned, struggle to compromise for their children’s wellbeing amid the chaos.
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Comfortably upper-middle class, the girls’ mother, Elena (Jimena Lindo), has landed a job prospect in Minnesota and has seized the chance to escape the turmoil. But she needs Carlos’ signature to authorize their daughters’ departure permits. Teenage Aurora (Luana Vega) has doubts about leaving her friends and boyfriend behind, while the younger and humorously inquisitive Lucía (Abril Gjurinovic) doesn’t question the move.
That Elena encourages Carlos to spend time with the girls before their departure further complicates the youths’ feelings. He’s agreed to validate the paperwork but won’t actually act on this promise. Both fresh-faced actresses precisely express the curiosity and skepticism their characters feel toward their estranged and imaginative father.
Reynicke carefully selected the locations to maintain the illusion of a bygone era without having to dress large sets with cars or extras. One sequence, where Elena buys dollars from an informal seller on the street only to turn around and be confronted with a protest, succinctly immerse us in the sociopolitical context in one swift beat.
Likewise, the most recurrent interior, the elegantly decorated home of Elena’s mother, Tita (Spanish actress Susi Sánchez), indicates their well-off position in comparison to Carlos, who we mostly see inside his worn-out car. A palette of muted colors, even when father and daughters take trips to the nearby beach, as well as Diego Romero’s agile camera, paint a delicately stylized sense of realism, resembling a faded postcard or photograph from the time period.
The effectives of “Reinas” hinges in how Molina handles Carlos’ personality, a man whose fantastical claims to avoid fessing up to his shortcomings amuse most around him (not his mother-in-law so much). One day, he declares himself a secret intelligence agent and the next an impromptu archeologist fluent in the Indigenous Quechua language. Molina’s nonchalant performance with a noticeable hint of self-consciousness crystalizes why some think of him as an endearing fool down on his luck and others as an untrustworthy slacker.
One could make the case for either reading of his actions — testament to both the incisive writing and Molina’s unflashy embodiment. Through his creative approach to maximizing the time with his daughters, Carlos is also dragging his feet on securing they have a safer future elsewhere, away from him and their troubled homeland. And yet, that warped charm arouses a desire to learn about him, to decipher how he became this daydreamer.
Reynicke repeatedly refuses to indulge that impulse, keeping us at the same distance as his daughters are from knowing the truth of who he is or was. That’s simultaneously a frustrating and brilliant storytelling choice, as it maintains a playfully intriguing aura around him.
Less pronounced, but still praiseworthy is how Reynicke and co-writer Diego Vega Vidal (“October”) have thoughtfully embedded politically resonant undertones into the seemingly insignificant role of Vilma (Flor Castillo), the family’s housekeeper. Though she doesn’t have a full arc, a handful of reactions establish her agency. When Tita asks her to stay longer hours, Vilma refuses, stating that her home is two hours away and she needs to get there before curfew. When asked to be part of a goodbye family photo, she emphatically rejects the offer.
Inserting a family’s intimate tribulations into a broader historical canvas, Reynicke proves her cleverness by balancing a bit of grounded wonder with the perilous reality. The blackouts that afflict Lima, for example, are reinterpreted as an otherworldly visit from Lucía’s perspective. Just a few moments later, “Reinas” switches tonal gears to confirm that the outside dangers, which often occurred beyond the characters’ bubble of privilege, have finally reached them.
The director leverages the perceived smallness of “Reinas,”centered on a former couple eventually united via a common preoccupation, to surreptitiously tackle the more expansive issues that in turn pushed its protagonists into their personal dilemma. It’s only by zeroing on those directly affected at ground level that history acquires a human face.
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