Screening at this year’s London Film Festival is After Lucía (Después de Lucía, 2012), Mexico’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards and Michel Franco’s deeply harrowing follow-up to Daniel & Ana (2009). Franco’s latest is a captivating, if not quite tortuous expose of school-yard bullying, told with horrifying intensity through the camera’s unflinching gaze. Following the death of her mother, Alejandra (Tessa Ia) and her father (Hernan Mendoza) move to Mexico in order to begin a fresh new life. Starting a new school can be difficult for any child – yet Alejandra fits in instantly, even ingratiated to the ‘popular’ sect.
However, after a drunken accident at a party tarnishes Alejandra’s reputation, her fragile dignity turns into fair game for the school’s bullies. In addition, her newfound friendships disappear as quickly as they were formed. Franco’s use of static, over-the-shoulder and wide-angle shots create a voyeuristic sensation throughout, permanently imprisoning the audience within Alejandra’s excruciatingly insular world of torment and humiliation.
Using the grief of maternal loss and the relatively mild effect it has on our strong-willed protagonist also helps amplify the magnitude of this bullying, highlighting the psychological importance of classroom hierarchy within these awkward years of adolescence. Franco’s unrelenting approach could lead the viewer to question the plausibility of the violence Alejandra encounters. Going from popular new girl to social pariah (and glorified schoolroom piñata), the degradation After Lucía’s victimised heroine endures can feel a little overplayed, in both the disgust it evokes and the vulgarity of its approach.
However, the key to Franco’s troubling tale is not to point the finger at the students. Rather, it is to highlight the problems that currently pollutes the education system – a theme portrayed through a noticeable lack of any authorities figures, the minimal presence of teachers and the heavy focus on the school’s strict stance towards drug testing. All of the previous point to a system swayed by media sensationalism, clearly more focused on their outward appearance than the well-being of their students.
Social realism malformed into something more analogous to a horror film is nothing new, and undeniably there will be some who will find After Lucía’s unwaveringly bleak portrait of adolescent cruelty far too graphic to be heralded as anything short of exploitative and grotesque. However, which ever way you stand, there’s little denying that Franco’s soul-destroying film is certain to provoke some pretty strong reactions – a major accomplishment for any feature.
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from 10-21 October. For more of our LFF coverage, simply follow this link.