Lesbian Teen Romance Highlights Annual Latin American Film Series

"One in a Thousand" is set in a town in Northern Argentina.
Film at Lincoln Center

“Neighboring Scenes,” the annual series of Latin American films co-presented by Lincoln Center and Cinema Tropical, is celebrating its sixth anniversary just before Lincoln Center’s movie theaters reopen on April 16.

Although the Brazilian-made “Bacurau” was one of last year’s streaming success stories, the pandemic seems to have put a damper on US distribution of subtitled movies. Series like these remain vital given the potential difficulty of seeing intriguing-sounding titles like “Night Vision,” a personal documentary by a Chilean director about rape, or “All the Dead Ones,” a historical epic which shows how racism persisted in Brazil after the abolition of slavery. I was able to preview the queer-adjacent “Los fantasmas” and lesbian teen romance “One in a Thousand.”

Argentine director Clarisa Navas’ “One in a Thousand” captures a paradox of contemporary teenage life. No adults bother telling her characters that they can’t stay up all night partying. Yet the freedoms they enjoy, including being open about their gayness, are curtailed by their own slut-shaming and surveillance of each other, as well as the fact that their actions can always be filmed on phones and then traded around.

Ana Carolina Garcia (left) with Sofia Cabrera in “One in a Thousand.”Lincoln Center.

Set in a housing project — the “thousand” of the title — in a town in Northern Argentina where horses sometimes trot down the street, it follows 17-year-old Iris (Sofia Cabrera) as she hears rumors about Renata (Ana Carolina Garcia), a girl she’s attracted to. Boys spread stories that Renata is an HIV-positive sex worker.

Over a leisurely paced two hours, Navas lets her camera, which is often handheld, stay with the characters through long days trying to kill time in crowded apartments. (The busy sound design, which lets us hear their neighbors’ arguments, increases the claustrophobia.) The lack of privacy is built in to the world of “One in a Thousand,” long before Instagram ever existed. Iris sits around with her cousins Dario (Mauricio Vila) and Ale (Luis Molina). All three seem to be queer to some extent, but Iris still hesitates to pursue a relationship with Renata. Nevertheless, the film flirts with the sensationalism of superficially similar projects like Larry Clark’s “Kids” or the TV series “Euphoria,” but ultimately dodges it to evoke a milieu of working-class Argentine youth and suggest what it’s like to be queer amongst it.

Meanwhile, Guatemalan director Sebastian Lojo’s “Los fantasmas” lights a fuse which takes an hour to go off. Guatemala City is shown as an alienating hotbed of violence, full of heterosexuals who exploit and rob gay men. While cinematographer Vincenzo Marranghino could get work using this as his demo reel, the direction and script keep the audience at arm’s length.

“Los fantasmas” is based in Guatemala City. Lincoln Center

Hotel manager Carlos (Carlos Morales) is introduced putting on makeup to get in the ring as his wrestler alter ego. However, the athletic scene that follows does not set the tone for the rest of “Los fantasmas.” The film is laconic and detached from its characters. Carlos employs a handsome young man, Koki (Marvin Navas), to seduce men so that he can steal from them. Koki seems to be heterosexual, having fathered a child with Sofia (Daniela Castillo).

By the end of “Los fantasmas,” one can recall the story it conveys, but the experience of watching it is much different. While “Los fantasmas” isn’t primarily concerned with narrative, it’s so unconcerned with Carlos’ life as a wrestler that introducing that thread was a waste.

 The style is immersive at times, using handheld close-ups, but most often it tries to keep the spectator away from any easy understanding. When one of Koki’s robbery victims tracks him down in a bar and beats him up outside, with the aid of a group of friends, the camera remains locked down in a static long shot inside. The teeming bars and nightclubs are brightly lit and oddly colored, suggesting desperate signs of life in an hostile environment.

In the last 15 minutes, Koki finally makes his way out of Guatemala City, and the film develops some breathing room. Its style, including the use of a Korean rock ballad, becomes far more lyrical. But considering how long it took to feel as though it was going anywhere other than a familiar strain of festival cinema, the ride amounts to too little, too late. “Los fantasmas” doesn’t come up with a reason why we should care about a jerk whose inner life it never really expresses.

“NEIGHBORING SCENES” | Film at Lincoln Center | Filmlinc.org | March 31st-April 12th

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