Biarritz Latin American Film Festival 2023 review: El otro hijo (Juan Sebastián Quebrada)

El otro hijo is an uneven but effective work that wears a little thin around a strong core.”

Brothers Simon and Fede are inseparable, despite living separated from each other. Though from the same nest, they couldn’t be more different. Simon is outgoing, loud, and truth be told a bit of an asshole. He sends his girlfriend Laura packing when she doesn’t want to sleep with him. Fede is more introverted, even though he has a solid circle of friends. When the brothers attend a party at Laura’s place where alcohol and drugs are plentiful, the unthinkable happens: Simon falls from the balcony and dies a few stories lower. This rips both Fede and Laura apart, but in an odd way brings the two of them together as they start a friendship that borders on romance. Mixed signals from Laura throw him into confusion, and the one girl in his circle that has a crush on him also doesn’t know how to handle the situation. With an upcoming high school prom and a trip to Paris to study music, Fede is emotionally pushed to the brink. And then there’s his mother to handle, whose grief over the loss of her son goes so deep that she completely loses the plot.

One would think that grief as a subject has become stale, but Colombian director Juan Sebastián Quebrada manages to give it an original twist in his second feature El otro hijo (The Other Son). Picking up the pieces after a devastating loss is never easy, but while showing Fede finding the strength to live life again through Laura is not exactly a new narrative choice, it is not often done so delicately. Although the girl is given little in terms of her own struggle with the loss of her boyfriend, and is used mostly as a vessel through which Fede can get his feet back on the ground, the film is smart enough to portray Laura as a character with a will of her own. The push-and-pull between the two teenagers, often influenced by the use of alcohol (Bogotá’s teens for sure know how to party), tends to show Laura in a somewhat negative light, in particular in comparison to a timid but honest Fede. But she is just as dazed and confused as he is about Simon’s death, which between them they conclude was a suicide out of fear of rejection. El otro hijo realistically portrays their tentative relationship as teens being teens, especially teens in a situation as difficult as this.

Several plot strands around this central relationship fare not so well. The mother’s grief provides some screaming melodrama that could have been toned down, and desperation driving her to seek out the help of a medium lets this storyline unravel into ridiculous tragi-comedy. The father figures in Fede’s life are unevenly drawn to the point where you are wondering who is who, and wrapping up the various strands of family drama in a hurried happy ending is unsatisfying. What holds the film together is the bond between Fede and Laura and their interaction with friends, which feels sincere and entirely natural. Even then, at barely 90 minutes El otro hijo feels stretched thin. Though modestly directed, the way Quebrada details the central conflict shows the talent for rendering drama in an affecting way was definitely there; a shame the screenplay wasn’t, at least not to the fullest. Enhanced by a string of excellent performances, in particular the striking Miguel González as the silently brooding and emotionally conflicted Fede, El otro hijo is an uneven but effective work that wears a little thin around a strong core.