This semi-autobiographical sophomore feature from Mexican director Lila Avilés follows one family’s journey through grief and loss, experienced through the eyes of a young girl.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
Taking place over the course of a single day, Tótem is the story of a family navigating immense grief told from the perspective of seven-year-old Sol. While the matriarchs fret and fight over preparations for that evening’s party, Sol simply wants to see her father, Tona. Gently coaxed away by her family, she spends her time collecting snails, building pillow forts, and avoiding the growing tensions in the house. Almost in parallel, Tona is avoiding his family and the party being thrown in his honour as he struggles to gather the strength and humility to leave the safety of his room and face the proverbial music.
Featuring sensitive, ardent performances by a cast of newcomers and mostly non-actors, Tótem creates a magic blend of scripted drama and documentary-style intimacy. Lead Naíma Sentíes delivers an earnest and heartbreaking performance of a young girl caught in-between. In a particularly touching scene, Sol resorts to asking her phone the prickly questions her family won’t answer. When she confides “sometimes I feel like my dad doesn’t love me when he says he doesn’t want to see me,” to her father’s nurse, it’s as if she is noticed for the first time that day—a moment that may well ring true for anyone who has had to navigate loss in a familial setting. Packing an emotional punch with a searing fourth-wall shattering finale, this semi-autobiographical sophomore feature from actor-turned-director Lila Avilés is an intimate family portrait that is ultimately filled with joy and hope. — Kailey Carruthers