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“El Planeta” builds its conflict around a single problem, but holds off on revealing it until the very end. In artist Amalia Ulman’s charming first feature, the writer-director stars as a young creative who returns from London to post-crisis Spain, helping her broke mother contend with destitution after her husband’s death. Mostly, they hang around the seaside city of Gijón throughout steeped in the small details from their grifter lifestyle, shrugging off the looming threat of eviction and maybe something worse. Once the predictable comeuppance arrives, it’s practically an afterthought; the appeal of “El Planeta” lies with a pair of women who prefer to live in the moment rather than considering its consequences.
Think “Tiny Furniture” by way of “Paper Moon”: In a tender and playful riff on the art-imitating-life conceit, Ulman acts opposite her real-life mother, Ale Ulman, an acting novice who nevertheless gives a fun and zany performance as a diva in denial. The pair apparently did endure a bout of homelessness in their time together, and Ulman truly went to London for school. No matter how much the movie departs from the specifics of their experiences — and the way things work out, it’s pretty clear that it does — the real-life bond between the women helps cement the movie in genuine chemistry even as it zigs and zags through a leisurely plot.
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The younger Ulman here plays Leonor, a spunky and talented designer attempting to navigate her mother María’s bizarre existence alongside genuine professional responsibilities. That’s no easy task since María shows little interest in even the slightest accountability for her actions. Offered a big gig on a photo shoot in New York, Leonor’s forced to sell her sewing machine to afford the flight; meanwhile, her mother racks up daunting bills across town, from fancy dresses to fruit places, putting it all on the bill of an affluent boyfriend who may or may not exist.
“El Planeta” spends much of its concise 80-minute runtime lingering in this curious scenario as the coastal city of Gijón — where global tourism has been in steady decline since the financial crisis — becomes a tertiary character at the center of their dynamic, a living encapsulation of a country still buckling from unemployment and decline. Despite little indication that the pair can escape eviction, María seems to live in an exuberant bubble of denial, surrounding her home with various cat paraphernalia and fiddling with her phone while her daughter attempts to keep the hustle alive. It’s both endearing and sad to watch them drift along to the inevitable repercussions for María’s reckless behavior.
Meanwhile, Leonor emerges as the kind of strong-willed character eager to move beyond the inertia of the previous generation, but trapped by the limitations at her disposal. Ulman’s vignette-based deadpan style echoes early Jim Jarmusch, and not only because of the elegant black-and-white: The script often lingers in rambling exchanges that don’t amount to much in the moment, even as they contribute to the wider picture of malaise that surrounds her existence.
Conflicts quietly worm their way into the story from the usual places, including a one-night stand that ends badly and a sudden lack of electricity that sends Leonor into a panic. But the most telling incident arrives early on, when Ulman briefly considers prostitution and meets a potential client (Spanish sci-fi director Nacho Vigalondo in a slimy cameo), runs a quick-cost benefit analysis, and decides a blowjob gig just doesn’t justify the investment. Even the grifter lifestyle has its limits.
“El Planeta” seems to anticipate a climax at a local gala for the Princess of Asturias prize with Martin Scorsese in attendance (a real event that took place in 2018, though the movie’s setting is ambiguous), as the women go on a hilarious shopping spree to prepare for the posh evening. The event, however, ends up as something of a red herring, embodying the kind of fantasy lifestyle that the women pretend they can dial up with ease.
With a low-key soundtrack from Chicken (aka DJ Burke Battelle) and cinematographer Carlos Rigo Bellver’s lush imagery contributing to the elegant atmosphere, “El Planeta” feels both slick and a little out of place, just like its characters’ lives. The movie isn’t engrossing from moment to moment but keeps adding more clues about the nature of their existence and what sort of motivations keep it in motion. And it finally arrives at an understated payoff in the closing moments that completes the big picture with a scathing punchline that puts the whole thing in perspective. More than anything else, the appeal of “El Planeta” comes down to people who realize they’ve exhausted every option, and decide they may as well go down in style.
“El Planeta” premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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