Ana Cristina Barragán / Ecuador / 2016 / 98 mins
As part of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival
Cripplingly shy by nature, the titular Alba’s awkward adolescence is thrown into even more turmoil when her seriously ill mother is hospitalised. Into the breach steps (or rather, shambles) Igor, Alba’s estranged father. An ungainly misfit of a man, Igor is well-meaning but entirely out of his depth in the role into which he’s now been thrust.
Alba is an introspective study of what it means to be a pre-teen on the fringes of the schoolyard. The 11-year-old girl is forced to juggle several major tribulations all at once: the uprooting of her home life, an awkward fledgling relationship with a man she doesn’t know from Adam, the natural changes her body is undergoing, her first romantic feelings and the usual verbal rough-and-tumble of the classroom – and she appears to be utterly unequipped to deal with any of them. But despite the fact that her reticence and introspection make her an easy target for derision from classmates, occasionally she’s shown glimpses of kindness and more than one invitation into the fold.
The camerawork concentrates largely on close-ups of Macarena Arias’ face and body, encapsulating uncertainty and withdrawal in every downward turn of the eyes and flinch of the limbs. It’s a tremulously beautiful performance from a young actress who reportedly beat off 599 competitors for the title role – Arias firmly makes it her own. Pablo Aguirre Andrade is the only other actor with significant screen time or lines and he’s wholly convincing and more than a little heart-rending as the timid, pathetic parent making tentative efforts to build a bridge with his daughter.
The action drags a little in the first hour or so – lingering close-ups and a real spartan sparsity with dialogue work well to convey Alba’s introversion, but don’t always make for compelling viewing. However, the last 20 minutes ratchet up the pace and the emotional tension significantly, resulting in a painful, powerful conclusion to an intriguing study of the psyche of the pre-teen outsider.