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It’s difficult to know just how much stock should be given to the choice of year in which Too Late to Die Young is set. Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s third feature takes place in 1990, not long after Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet relinquished power following an historic plebiscite in 1988. Pinochet’s brutal autocracy barely gets a mention throughout. Yet the uncertainty of the new political landscape seems to weigh heavily over everyone involved, even if they don’t care to admit it. Too Late to Die Young is a touching coming of age tale about lost people in fear of the prospects they hoped for not coming to pass in a post-autocratic society.
We do open with a “new beginning” of sorts, albeit not one welcomed by our characters. In a deliberately haphazard sequence, what looks to be a family is crammed into a small vehicle. They are in a hurry to leave. Amidst all the chaos, a dog is left behind in cloud of trailing dust. It’s the kind of workaday yet startling image that much of Too Late to Die Young makes a currency out of. It turns out that there are several families, all choosing to live together—or at least very close to each other—in a sort of ecological community at the foot of the Andes away from any urban sprawl.
We get the sense that this is not the first time that our 16-year-old lead Sofia (Demian Hernández) and her friend Lucas have been uprooted and made live in the middle of Chile’s verdant nowhere with barely any running water and even less electricity. Their physical displacement isn’t exactly working wonders for the emotional turmoil of mid-teenagerhood. Our first proper look at Sofia comes after she stares at a painting of a woman for what feels like an eternity before her pretty, near-diaphanous face comes into stark focus. From the off, Castillo doesn’t just establish that Sofia wants to be somewhere else, but someone else too.
For much of the first half, it’s not easy to tell how everyone relates to each other. Castillo obfuscates the nature of these relationships and doesn’t feed us with wordy exposition to make it simple for us. Not unlike last year’s Shoplifters, the traditional notion of what constitutes “family” is questioned. There are people here related by blood. But the dynamics at play suggest familial bonds are not just a product of a shared ancestry.
While this all takes place in rural, mountainous isolation, the typical inter-familial dramas and pubescent, hormonal anxieties are just as present here as they would be in Santiago. Sofia is often at odds with her father Carlos for dragging her out to county as she yearns for something, anything else. Through suggestive glances, we gather that Lucas is pining for Sofia who in turn longs for a twenty-something older man. What she really desires however, is the maturity that comes with independence and to live alone with her mother, a famous musician situated in the city.
Castillo doesn’t exactly favour narrative focus over tasteful mood setting. Her story unveils itself more through passing looks, dialogue charged with repressed feelings, and poetic flourishes more than it does with events of significant consequence. This can result is some somnambular stretches, especially in an overextended second half. It also means we get serene, evocative images powered by the deft use of natural light. The Chilean sunshine glistens over quiet, languid moments like when Sofia bathes with a cigarette or our characters are enjoying gentle guitar plucking by an open fire.
The real tension in the story comes from the conflict between the idealism of the eco-utopia these people wish to attain and the messy reality of life away from civilisation. In a post-Pinochet world, freedom was on everyone lips but we see autocratic fascism is not the only thing restricting liberty. Sofia’s father and others are beleaguered by economic necessity, having to sell prized possessions because they lack the self-sufficiency they crave. Sofia herself feels trapped in her youth and by having to find stimulation and autonomy while living in other people’s ideal existence. She’s denied a cosmopolitan life via an absent mother who dodges her at every turn and can’t achieve connection with a well-meaning father who struggles to express his feelings.
It’s in the strong final act and New Year’s Eve party that Too Late to Die Young finally zeros in on its emotional core. The previously buried and messy sentiments that lay dormant between characters suddenly and subtly come to a head in a passionate night and sobering morning-after. There’s an excruciating, unfinished declaration of love, an endearingly terrible rock-band performance and a heart-breaking vocal rendition of The Bangle’s “Eternal Flame” that rings out like a final rebuke of a failing parent. To digress, the period-appropriate soundtrack slaps throughout. South American synth-pop giants Los Prisioneros will be your new favourite band.
Too Late to Die Young ends as it began, with a rushed exit and a new beginning. This time in 1991, the first new year in decades when Chileans could enjoy living in a democracy. Pinochet’s virtual exclusion makes perfect sense actually. Castillo was never concerned about what happened during his regime, but what came after for the people who endured it. The final scene is either hopeful new chapter or a repeating of old patterns. Either way, Castillo is asking a simple but existential question of Sofia and the others. Well, what next?