The Movie Waffler New to VOD - TOTEM | The Movie Waffler

New to VOD - TOTEM

New to VOD - TOTEM
A young girl prepares for her dying father's birthday party.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lila Avilés

Starring: Naíma Sentíes, Montserrat Marañon, Marisol Gasé, Saori Gurza, Mateo García Elizondo, Teresita Sánchez, Alberto Amador

Totem poster

Mexican writer/director Lila Avilés opens her sophomore feature, Totem, with a light-hearted interaction between a young mother, Lucia (Iazua Larios), and her seven-year-old daughter, Sol (Naíma Sentíes), in what appears to be a gas station restroom. Then as they drive towards a bridge, Lucia tells her daughter that if she holds her breath as they pass under the bridge she can make a wish come true. Sol doesn't wish for a pony or a new dress or any other frivolous fancy you might expect from a child of her age. Sol wishes for her daddy not to die.

Totem review

Sol's father, Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), is in the final stages of terminal cancer. Falling somewhere between Altman-esque ensemble and Malickian spirituality, Totem plays out over the course of what will presumably be Tona's final birthday. An elaborate party is to be thrown in the home of Tona's bohemian family, filled with adults and children and cats and dogs and parrots and goldfish.

For the first half of the film Tona is unseen, resting in his bedroom where he's aided by a caring nurse, Cruz (Teresita Sánchez, star of Avilés' debut The Chambermiad), with whom he's bonded to the point of secretly bequeathing her most of the paintings he has racked up in his career as an artist. Sol desperately wants to see her father but various adult relatives try to keep her busy with preparations for the party. Sol, a precocious child with a head full of facts about nature, explores the home with the curiosity of an extra-terrestrial investigating a MidWest farm at 3am, knocking over trinkets and sipping wine from a bottle she discovers on a basement shelf.

Totem review

Meanwhile Tona's family fuss about and bicker over how she could be cared for. Some are practical and argue for chemo, which Tona has refused, while others turn to the spiritual, holding meditative sessions and hiring a woman to rid the home of bad vibes ("I also sell tupperware," the pseudo-shaman announces as she receives payment). Tona's elderly father (Alberto Amador), a psychologist who speaks with the aid of a voicebox, looks on in dismay.

As dusk falls and the party begins, glasses are raised, tributes are paid and tears are shed. Sol wanders through adult legs like a child lost in a cornfield. The grown-ups try to protect her but she knows more than they'd like. When she's finally united with her father it's an underplayed but nonetheless emotionally overwhelming moment, filmed in an extended unbroken take.

Totem review

The performance of young Sentíes is astonishing. She never comes off as one of those child actors who have had the profession drummed into her by eager parents. Every choice she makes feels natural and organic, and while she's probably too young to fully grasp the film she's appearing in, there's no doubt that she feels Sol's heartbreak. As the camera lingers on her face in an extended closing shot, we're left with an inspirational picture of childhood resilience.

 is on UK/ROI VOD from February 26th.

2023 movie reviews