Claudia Huaiquimilla’s sophomore feature My Brothers Dream Awake (Mis Hermanos Sueñan Despiertos) resembles her 2016 debut Bad Influence with its intense focus on adolescent characters and a deeply flawed legal system whose inadequacy is laid bare in an increasingly violent series of events. The protagonists of this affecting and politically charged drama are two teenage brothers, Angel and Franco, who find themselves trapped in a juvenile prison without even facing trial for over a year. The important subject matter and Huaiquimilla’s sensitive approach can ensure further exposure on the festival circuit following the film’s premiere in Locarno’s “Filmmakers of the Present” competition.
The tough daily routine in the juvenile prison brings a degree of gritty realism to My Brothers Dream Awake, which is not a surprise considering Huaiquimilla’s background in documentary. But the filmmaker tries hard to expand her story beyond the confines of the prison, weaving multiple dreamlike (or rather nightmarish) interludes into the narrative and making extensive use of voiceover narration. There is a clear sense of social responsibility and urgency in this film, most clearly expressed in a concluding dedication to hundreds of children who have suffered in Chilean prisons for decades. But for the most part this is far from a didactic, message-driven effort, as one of Huaiquimilla’s key goals seems to be finding an unexpected beauty and naiveté in this harsh, unforgiving environment. What distinguishes this closely observed feature from its peers is the director’s unmistakable affection towards her characters. Striking this delicate balance between stark social commentary and poetic human drama is a difficult task, which Huaiquimilla manages to pull off only to a certain extent.
A Chilean cousin to Colson Whitehead’s similarly-themed Pulitzer Prize winner The Nickel Boys, My Brothers Dream Awake unfortunately lacks the clarity and precision of that recent literary masterpiece. Whitehead’s prose hits the reader hard because of its directness; his portrayal of juvenile incarceration is brief and devoid of any melodramatic excess. Huaiquimilla’s storytelling, on the other hand, sometimes veers too far into sentimentality and cannot avoid utilizing a few unnecessary clichés. There are several emotional scenes involving Angel and Franco’s grandparents; the older brother is described as a poet by one of his fellow prisoners; the heartbreaking absence of the boys’ mother is underlined too many times. Subplots featuring another prisoner with an addiction problem or a young girl from the female section of the institution are rather predictable, diluting the impact of an otherwise powerful story. It is a shame, because the backbone of the film (which mainly focuses on how Angel and Franco find a new family of brothers inside the prison) actually has genuine warmth and is effortlessly moving. Just spending time in the company of these boys and sharing their everyday experiences would perhaps be sufficient without some of the plot mechanisms that clutter the film in the final stretch. The latter part of the film brings a harrowing event to screen, which is a devastating scene on its own, but feels at odds with the opening sections that refuse to focus on such drastic developments. For example, Huaiquimilla films an early fight sequence by leaving the blows mostly off screen or obscured (choosing to follow the cheering and shouting boys in the audience instead), but this nuanced directorial approach is replaced with a more insistent brand of filmmaking, attempting to elicit a heightened emotional response from the viewers as the film nears its end.
The appearance of the always-wonderful Paulina Garcia (best known for her unforgettable turn in Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, which earned her the Best Actress prize in Berlin in 2013) in a short but memorable role is a valuable addition to an extraordinary ensemble mostly made up of young newcomers. These solid performances and impressive camerawork keep My Brothers Dream Awake engaging even when the storytelling gets somewhat clumsy. Despite some occasional missteps, this is certainly a significant and accomplished work that deserves a wide audience.