Debut features can have a "look at me!" attitude, born of the desire to show off the width of one's influences and knowledge and of the wish to create a striking calling card few will forget. Argentinian director Jazmín López's debut manages to be both but without the sense of a mere youthful exercise: it's a genuinely smart, disturbing, accomplished debut that wears its influences lightly within a very determined, clear-minded personality. Its slight narrative - five teenagers on their way to a vacation find themselves lost in the woods - unfolds mostly as an atmospheric series of long, one-take steadycam shots (around twenty, according to my count) that wander through nature alongside the cast.

     The camera's constant, nervous movement, soundtracked only by the party's footsteps and the sounds of nature, is a symbol of the disorientation and discomfort the five kids are feeling as they search in vain for the country house they've got lost in the way to. Of the five, only the nervous, uncomfortable Isabel (Julia Volpato) seems aware something is not quite right; none of the others seems overly worried that they're lost, left to their own devices and unsure of where they're heading to. The metaphor of growing up into adulthood may be self-evident, but is never pushed by Ms. López; she works instead into creating a fully immersive environment for the viewer to lose himself in alongside her cast, much helped by Julia Hoberman's extraordinary sound design work and DP Matías Mesa's careful attention to the ever-shifting lighting conditions.

     While Leones seems to be a moody companion piece to other ambient-heavy directors like Ms. López's countrymen Lucrecia Martel or Lisandro Alonso, or to Gus van Sant's most demanding experiments such as Gerry or Last Days, the film is very much its own beast: a smart visit to adolescence's emotional wasteland, with a stunning formal control unusual for such a young director. Leones may be a one-off or the first step in a long career, but either way it's one of the most extraordinary debuts I've seen in a long time.

Cast: Julia Volpato, Pablo Sigal, Macarena del Corro, Diego Vegezzi, Tomás Mackinlay
Director, writer, art director: Jazmín López
Cinematography: Matías Mesa (colour, widescreen)
Costumes: Barbi Aranschin
Editors: Benjamín Domenech, Ms. López, Andrea Kleinman
Sound design: Julia Hoberman
Producer: Matías Roveda (Rei Cine, Petit Film, Viking Film, Lemming Film and CEPA Audiovisual in association with ARTE and Cofinova 6)
Argentina/France/Netherlands, 2012, 82 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition, advance streaming screener, Lisbon, March 30th 2013, and official competition screening, Culturgest, Lisbon, April 22nd 2013


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