‘Too Late to Die Young’ Review: Big Changes, Quietly Observed

“Too Late to Die Young,” Dominga Sotomayor’s haunting third feature, could be classified as a summer vacation coming-of-age story. Since it takes place in Chile, summer coincides with New Year’s Eve, when the movie’s big, climactic party takes place. The setting is highly specific. The year drawing to a close is 1990, when the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet came to an end. Though nobody on screen talks about politics, the sense of exhaustion and tentative optimism that hovers over their actions might have something to do with the state of their country.

Or maybe not. Sotomayor approaches her characters and their problems with subtlety and tact, and is more interested in reading their glances and gestures than in putting words in their mouths. In any case, her attention is focused on the daily routines at a makeshift vacation colony in the foothills of the Andes, where a group of artistically inclined adults and their children and pets have come to escape the stresses of city life.

The younger children ride bikes, splash around in the swimming hole and nap in the sun. Their teenage siblings smoke, strum guitars and flirt. The grown-ups gossip, cook, drink wine and discuss work that needs to be done. There are intimations of trouble: a break-in at one of the cabins; disputes over water; concerns about fire and relations with the locals; marital tensions. But most of what happens has a ritualistic feel, and the still, dusty air wraps the story in nostalgia.

A romantic triangle takes shape involving Sofia (Demian Hernández), who is 16. Lucas (Antar Machado), who is her age, is clearly in love with her, but she’s more interested in Ignacio (Matías Oviedo), an older guy with a motorbike. Sofia’s parents are separated, and she is impatient for adulthood. When her father tells her to put out a cigarette, she says: “I’m a smoker. End of discussion.”

A younger girl, Clara (Magdalena Tótoro), searches for a lost dog, whose disappearance is both a plot device and something of a metaphor. The families are set in their ways, but at the same time relations among them seem fragile and fungible. Their world looks stable and also as if it might collapse at any moment.

“Too Late to Die Young” is above all an achievement in mood and implication. Sotomayor has a way of structuring scenes and composing images that makes everything perfectly clear but not obvious. Motives and actions are mysterious and relationships are ambiguous not because she wants to mystify anyone or anything, but because she’s a realist. By the end of the film, you know its world intimately, without necessarily understanding it any better than the people you’ve been observing.

Too Late to Die Young

Not rated. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

Too Late to Die Young

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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott

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