“García’s performance is the beating heart of Guzmán’s intimate character study, a film that does not fully manage to wrap up its story but in its small stature hides a lot of depth that is plain to see for the perceptive viewer.”
More often than not true strength in cinema finds itself in subtlety. Films that wear their message on their sleeve are unfortunately a dime a dozen, so it’s refreshing when a film like Laura Amelia Guzmán’s La hembrita shows up. Guzmán’s eighth film is a small and quiet one that is very restrained and devoid of any big drama, but within its barebones framework it speaks volumes about issues like class, race, and motherhood. Built around a strong performance by Cecilia García, La hembrita may fail to fully grab audiences, in particular ones who hope for melodrama based on its premise, but its director shows by her precision that she knows exactly what she is doing, and it gets under your skin when you are willing to dig a little deeper.
With her two sons having left the ancestral home, affluent middle-aged Dominique (García) is suffering from ’empty nest’ blues. Spending her days shopping in luxury malls and planning family get-togethers at home does not wash away her feelings of emptiness and unfulfillment; she dabbles a bit in music and singing, but it is nothing more than an escape from loneliness. Her husband (Cuquín Victoria) is in business and the source of Dominique’s wealth. Her life takes a sudden turn when the live-in housekeeper Carmen brings home her young granddaughter, who has no place to live anymore after being abandoned. Dominique’s maternal instinct kicks in as she dotes on a girl whose name she doesn’t even know. Neither does her grandmother for that matter, but Carmen soon disappears under mysterious circumstances and leaves Clarisse (Aleska Vasquez), as Dominique has named the girl, under the wings of her employer. Nobody seems to think this is a good idea, but Dominique insists and slowly opens the closed-off shell that is Clarisse. Then the girl’s deadbeat father shows up to demand money and his daughter back, and Dominique’s life is thrown into turmoil.
Narrative aside, most of La hembrita‘s deeper themes are meant to be read between the lines, away from the main story between Dominique and Clarisse. Apart from a late foray outside the safety of her affluent high-rise neighbourhood which is a little too on the nose and threatens to derail everything that Guzmán carefully built in the previous one-hour plus, the poignant statements the film makes about class and race lines are plain to read. Family and friends are white, servants are black. Even if Dominique and Carmen, who seemingly has been serving the family for decades, have a good relationship that borders on equality, when push comes to shove Dominique will let Carmen know who’s boss. Bits of news reports in the background speaking of a large corruption scandal subtly point to the way her wealth is obtained. Clarisse is the clearest indication of the divide between upper and lower classes in the way Dominique transforms the girl from the latter to the former. All of that is on the outside, image only, but the world outside Dominique’s close circle accepts it without question.
With a premise and narrative that are rather thin and a stylistic approach of sparsity that keeps the viewer at arm’s length, it’s on the shoulders of García and her performance to carry La hembrita through. García seems like a seasoned character actress but has only two other credits to her name, yet she embodies Dominique like a veteran. The way she signals her character’s mood with almost imperceptible facial changes suggests a talent that makes you wonder why she doesn’t have a long career as an actress behind her (to be fair, García’s other careers as a singer and TV personality have been quite successful). García’s performance is the beating heart of Guzmán’s intimate character study, a film that does not fully manage to wrap up its story but in its small stature hides a lot of depth that is plain to see for the perceptive viewer.