Tótem Is a Luminous, Hopeful Film About Childhood Grief

5 minute read

We know so little about children’s grief. As adults, we have all sorts of language and symbols, traditions and rituals, conventions that keep us moving our lips even when we don’t really know what words are coming out. This is how we get through the early days of loss. But what, exactly, do young children feel, when they’ve lost someone or they know that loss is imminent? Psychologists may claim to know, but there are no human feelings that can be easily diagrammed. Tótem, written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés, explores those unexplorable feelings, largely by focusing on a face: that of 7-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes), as she spends a day at her grandfather’s home, awaiting the elaborate evening birthday that’s been planned for her father Tona (Mateo Garcia).

Sol is excited about the party: she and her mother, Lucia (Iazua Larios) have prepared a little performance, a surprise for her father, involving a rainbow clown wig and a feat of operatic lipsynching. (The movie opens in a public bathroom, where mother and daughter fine-tune their routine, even as Sol tries to finish up her business on the toilet; this is the first of several scenes set in the bathroom, a space where mothers and daughters, especially, often bond over essentially feminine rituals, or even just giggle together.) But Sol is less at ease when they arrive at the house. Her cousin Ester (Saori Gurza), who’s a little younger and rather bratty, objects noisily to the clown nose Sol is wearing as part of her performance costume. Her two aunts, Nuri (Montserrat Marañón) and Alejandra (Marisol Gasé), bustle about the house, bickering with one another about everything and nothing as they prepare for the evening’s festivities. Sol’s grandfather (Alberto Amador) has retreated to his study; he’s nothing but crabby when he emerges. All this family chaos seems normal, and yet not. Because when Sol asks if she can see her father, she’s gently told that she can’t; he needs to rest up for his party.

Mateo Garcia and Naíma SentíesCourtesy of Sideshow/Janus Films

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Tona is dying of cancer, and though Sol knows that he’s very ill, this day marks her real reckoning with his inevitable death. If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for a downer, I don’t know what does. But Tótem is such a delicate tracery of a film that you never feel oppressed by it. This is Avilés’ second feature (her first was The Chambermaid, from 2018), and it’s assured without being over-obvious. We learn a lot about Sol just by watching her. The camera often focuses on her face as the adults chatter around her; this is the way of children, sometimes absorbing and struggling with the stuff grownups are saying and other times just ignoring it, taking the world in at their own pace. Sol has asked why her father won’t see her. Most of the grownups hesitate before brushing her off; they don’t mean to be unkind, but they don’t know what to say. Tona’s hired nurse, Cruz (Teresa Sánchez, in a performance filled with warmth and light) takes the time to listen to Sol, who has come to doubt that her father loves her. It’s Cruz who tells her that Tona thinks of her, and speaks of her, all the time; she makes Sol feel Tona’s love in a way the others can’t.

Naíma Sentíes in TótemCourtesy of Sideshow/Janus Films

Tona is so thin and frail that he’s barely able to function. How can a child understand this kind of leave-taking? Half-ignored by most of the grownups—who, we see, have their own problems—Sol wanders alone through her grandfather’s house. She loves animals and the world she and they inhabit together. She brings snails in from the garden and rehomes them on the surfaces of the staid, dull paintings lining the walls of the house, as if trying to bring some life to the stuffy images. She spies a parrot perched on a parked car outside and comes closer to say hello; the look on her face is an offer of both friendship and wonder, almost a kind of praying. There’s a mystical element to Tótem, an understanding of witchcraft as a way of striving for the fullest connection with the natural world. Sometimes that connection is just what we need to get us through the roughest days.

Avilés shows family life as a kind of net, contracting and expanding according to the whims and needs of the people caught up in it. Sol, at this moment, is struggling to understand an event that she knows is coming, one that feels shapeless and thus all the more terrifying. Yet Tótem is hopeful, not despairing. There’s a future for Sol, one for which her parents—perhaps especially Tona, a painter—have laid the groundwork, a way of looking and feeling that wraps the living world in an embrace. There’s a veil of sadness around Tótem, but it’s golden and gossamer rather than heavy and dark, all part of the movie’s shifting emotional colors. Tótem offers a promise of light beyond the sorrow, a concept that’s hard for children to comprehend. But then, adults need to be reminded of it too.

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