Directed by: Aaron Fernandez Lesur; Runtime: 101 minutes
The process in which teenagers learn the ropes of adulthood is a bit different for just about everyone: some make choices that alter who they'll become, while others have circumstances thrust upon them that force them to grow up a lot quicker than expected. Mexico's The Empty Hours (Las horas muertas) depicts a rather unique set of circumstances for a young man to experience his coming-of-age period, jamming the eighteen-year-old into an unconventional position of authority at an indecent place of business owned by a family member. Emphasizing nuance and organic human behavior through the simplicity of its location, director Aaron Fernandez Lesur tells a subtle yet versatile tale of responsibility, sexual chemistry, and finding satisfaction when life becomes overbearing, one that avoids the falseness that occasionally crops up in other coming-of-age films.
If given the choice while growing up, would you want to manage a by-the-hour motel? While I'm sure a few clients come along just wanting a decent nap, most of the patrons at Motel Palma Real on the coast of Veracruz aren't interested in sleeping, typically pulling into their parking areas with a companion and expecting both discretion and attentive service from the staff. That's the environment Sebastian (Kristyan Ferrer) -- just a few months shy of eighteen -- will have to maintain while his uncle is off having emergency medical tests, framed as an opportunity to learn a few life lessons while make some money in the process. After his uncle leaves, the keys to the kingdom are left in Sebastian's hands, forcing him to upkeep the charming state of its ten rooms and fill the boring time between arrivals. Unexpectedly, he finds a conversation companion in an attractive woman, Miranda (Adriana Paz), who frequents the hotel as a getaway for her secret lover, whom she's always waiting for.
Captured through cinematographer Javier Moron's candid perspective and doting attention to shadows, The Empty Hours strives to make Sebastian's inherited motel feel like an genuine, cozy environment, one that doesn't aim to glorify the location's purpose or make its patrons more appealing. The film's casual pacing embraces the routine activities of maintaining the two-toned lascivious motel for reserved dramatic effect, notably when Sebastian unavoidably listens to people in pleasure and his search for a new maid ... and what he's required to do, required to clean up, without one. From observing where he tries to get some sleep during the louder evenings to his drifting eyes onto a sultry part-time worker who does some of the laundry, there's a slyly erotic and voyeuristic tone to how Sebastian acclimatizes to his new surroundings, accentuated by his mix of eager and frustrated responses to the place's demands.
Through it all, though, Sebastian remains a charmer, a self-composed guy who credibly rolls with the punches and treats the situation as if it's within his capacity, convincing others that he's at least got the motel-management side of the business down. That's necessary for a film as singular and slight in focus as The Empty Hours: without the charisma and stability of Kristyan Ferrer's performance, much of Sebastian's interactions (and, thus, most of the film) could've rang hollow or inauthentic. Naturally, that genuineness comes even more into play once his burgeoning sexual energy complicates the story, starting with the transient part-time laundry girl and moving to Miranda, a sultry but mistreated woman whom he both sympathizes with and finds himself drawn to. When he's not observing the patrons -- even playing a guessing game with Miranda about their lives -- he also develops a sociable relationship with a sketchy coconut-selling boy across the street that becomes significant, a parallel to his own way of making the most of limited means.
The Empty Hours rarely leaves the grounds of the hour-by-hour motel -- once or twice for scooter rides, but mostly to briefly illustrate Miranda's dates and her unsatisfying job as a condo salesperson -- which both constricts the film's scope and heightens its dramatic intimacy and purpose, almost metaphorically bottling up Sebastian's temperament. While there are lurid tones around each bend in the film, bravely allowing its developing chemistries and obligations to go where they will, director Lesur uses this environment chiefly to communicate messages about adult responsibility and gratification, around transient infatuations and the messes left for others to clean up. That's why the abrupt, yet meaningful and stimulating resolution to The Empty Hours' growing sensuality gets swept up at the end by understated metaphorical images about being trapped in a tough situation, yet persevering anyway. For many young adults whose responsibilities and circumstances trump their desires, that's the way it goes.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 10/09/2014