MIAMI – Let it never be said that the Miami Film Festival doesn't know its competition. I'm not talking about South By Southwest, running concurrently in Texas at a pace so comparatively frantic that they scarcely seem like equivalent events, but the glorious spring sunshine, currently bathing the city's Art Deco-staggered skyline in honey-clear warmth too delicious to ditch for even the comfiest movie theater. Fully aware of this, Miami is the festival that comes out at night, concentrating its screenings in the evenings and following them up with parties that shoot for Cannes levels of razzle — all without the shadow of a 7am wake-up call. If there's a more coolly considerate festival on the circuit, I haven't been to it.
Activity intensifies over the fest's opening and closing weekends. Arriving late on Sunday, I missed much of the former, including a glittery kickoff bash attended by Anne Hathaway, Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer — the latter two the stars of the fest's curtain-raiser “Elsa & Fred,” a reportedly low-key but amiable senior romance. The strengths of Miami's programming aren't necessarily starry ones: last year, the highlights in the lineup were mostly to be found in its broad buffet of contemporary Latin-American cinema, and early signs suggests that may be the case again this year.
I'd certainly trade cocktails with Anne Hathaway for another few films as rewarding as a “Club Sandwich” (B+), the lean, lovely latest from Mexican writer-director Fernando Eimbcke (“Duck Season”). Miniatures can be easy to oversell, and after hearing the glowing notices from Toronto and San Sebastian last year, I approached this exceedingly spare mother-son drama with a measure of trust and caution, only to find that it's something rather special indeed: an unassumingly fresh spin on familiar coming-of-age territory, in which the parent's shifting perspective is no less significant or empathetically drawn than the child's.
As in his previous work, Eimbcke has an eye for the comedy and conflict hidden in the most everyday occurrences; in a film largely bereft of major incident, no gesture is minor or unrevealing. The opening scene, in which 15-year-old Hector (Lucio Gimenez Cacho) and his single, thirtysomething mother Paloma (Maria Renee Prudencio) mutually apply cream to each other's backs ahead of an afternoon's sunbathing, tells us everything we need to know about an affectionate, equally weighted relationship that is only just beginning to show signs of adolescent-age drift; their physical intimacy tacitly implying a family unit that no outside party has yet managed to enter.
That begins to change over the course of lazy, low-season vacation in a largely deserted coastal hotel, where Hector and Paloma's contented routine of poolside lounging, room service (the film is named for Hector's standard order) and frank, jovial conversation (Hector's not a kid afraid of asking his mother about her sex life) s disrupted by 16-year-old Jazmin (Danae Reynaud Romero), a lonely fellow hotel guest whose placid demeanor doesn't negate her ability to push Hector's sexual buttons: both curious but perhaps a little behind the developmental beat, the two embark on a course of gentle physical experimentation that unnerves Paloma even as she makes unintentionally invasive gestures to accommodate it.
With nascent facial hair settling in and a need for peer sounding boards that even his youthful mother — with her eyebrow ring and saucy sense of humor — can't provide, Hector on the awkward cusp of self-realization. But so too is Paloma: Eimbcke's subtle, zero-fat script details with heartbreaking clarity the fear she feels over no longer being needed by her only child. She can't help taking pride in his increased maturity, even as it uncovers a degree of insecurity over her own future. Prudencio's performance beautifully projects these warring internal impulses on her storied, too-young-to-be-old face; her passive-aggressive responses to Jazmin are pitched with achingly cruel precision and reluctant self-knowledge.
Eimbcke, for his part, is an artist who knows that low-fi, low-concept filmmaking provides no excuse for formal carelessness or indifference. Every cut in this 75-minute work is exquisitely timed, every shot thoughtfully composed, the pin-sharp sound design — all humming aircon units and whispering foliage in out-of-season breezes — as atmospherically and narratively essential as the dialogue. “Club Sandwich” is small in form but not in scope: its characters' lives spill out of the film's tight chronological framework as we wonder how they'll face future, larger personal awakenings. Eimbcke's emotional acuity sits happily alongside his aptitude for deadpan comedy of embarrassment; his film understands both the short-term and long-term pain of growing up, at any age.
With a title like “Club Sandwich,” you'd be forgiven for expecting to find the film in the Miami fest's Culinary Cinema sidebar — an annual feature in which festival director Jaie Laplante takes palpable pride, marrying gastronomically-themed films with appropriately catered festivities afterwards. “Le Chef” (C+), however, is less misleadingly titled: this slight, jaunty comedy about a veteran Michelin-starred chef (Jean Reno) being taught new tricks by a young chancer (Michael Youn) presented ideal fodder for the section.
Admittedly, the canapés it inspired at the post-screening party were rather more inventive than the film itself: beigely shot and peppered with disposable laughs, “Le Chef” plays cheerily by the Euro-sitcom book, sometimes to alarmingly dated effect. (An extended farce sequence that requires Reno and Youn to don undercover makeup as a Japanese nobleman and his geisha wife, in particular, seems ordered in from the 1960s.)
When the stars aren't channelling Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” however, it's an agreeable time-filler, brightened by Reno's reliable hangdog charm as a leading Parisian chef of the Cordon Bleu persuasion forced to incorporate 21st-century “molecular cuisine” trends into his menu to hang onto his restaurant — and his reputation. By chance, he stumbles upon Youn's Jacky, a culinary whiz too precocious to hang onto the unambitious brasserie jobs he keeps getting — and his pregnant girlfriend, who suspends their relationship until he finds permanent employment. (The gender politics here aren't too tasty either.)
Needless to say, adjustments are made and lessons are learnt as director Daniel Cohen brings things to an efficient if inevitable conclusion. There are some neat flashes of culinary-based satire — including a drolly pointed send-up of chemistry-inclined British experimentalist Heston Blumenthal — though proceedings are curiously short on lip-smacking food porn; if ever a film had an alibi for more lusciously superficial lifestyle montages, this is it. Good job the festival (and the chefs of Miami's swanky Bistro Moderne) took the baton from there.