‘Aurora’ Review: No Melodrama, Just Warmth With a Hint of Ambiguity

Over the course of her three features, Paz Fábrega has gradually stripped her films down in search of an essence. In her debut “Cold Water of the Sea,” she played with ambiguity and inscrutability while foregrounding a casual naturalism. In her followup “Viaje,” she reduced her scope with a playful, intimate story of a couple’s first encounter. Now with “Aurora” (presented at Ventana Sur in 2019 as “Restless”), she’s continued to refine her focus, giving life to a story of a pregnant teenager and the adult looking to help her through the process. It’s something of a trope that maturity brings clarity, and while her two previous films were far from immature, with “Aurora” it feels like she’s found a reflective minimalism as quietly honest as it is complexly human.

As with her earlier films, Fábrega uses non-professional actors, drawing out unadorned yet multifaceted performances. Luisa (Rebecca Woodbridge) is a single architect who finds significant fulfillment in her off hours teaching art classes to young students. She exudes warmth as a mentor, instilling in her pupils a love for the process of making art and the in-between phases that constitute the most heightened moments of creativity.

In the school bathroom she finds 17-year-old Yuliana (Raquel Villalobos) sick while taking pills to induce an abortion. The young woman has no adult she can confide in and refuses to tell her mother (Erika Rojas), so Luisa brings her to a doctor, where they learn that far from being in the early stages, Yuliana’s pregnancy is five months along. Abortion is not possible (only in December 2019 was so-called “therapeutic abortion” made legal in Costa Rica, meaning it’s still largely banned); Luisa offers to give Yuliana the safe space she needs until she decides what to do.

With the excuse of moving in with friends to study for upcoming exams, the young woman decamps to Luisa, who lends her clothes to hide the baby bump and just generally gives her support. Unlike so many films with similar subjects, the mother isn’t a nightmare: She’s loving and we suspect from the start that she’d ultimately come round. Yet like most teenagers, Yuliana can’t face the idea of being a disappointment, no doubt comparing the situation with the presumably similar circumstances surrounding her mother’s pregnancy with her.

Luisa’s subconscious motivations, apart from simply being a Good Samaritan, are less evident. Her unwillingness to leave Yuliana alone puts a strain on the relationship with her boyfriend Guille (Oscar González), and it’s unclear how she’s meant to relate to this new unequal association: Parental surrogate or intergenerational friend? The viewer understands from the start that she’s someone who enjoys transitional phases, when things are shaped and transformed, yet this is new territory, and the signals aren’t clear.

Interspersed throughout are ambiguous closeups of Luisa rolling on the floor with crystals dangling above. She seems frustrated, as if trying to work something out or, given the crystals, looking to derive some kind of New Age energy from the ground and the minerals. The brief scenes form the one element that doesn’t quite work, not because they’re enigmatic, but because they add nothing substantive to an already multifaceted character.

The film’s quiet success instead comes from Fábrega’s deep respect for her characters and the performers’ own abilities to silently convey both inner warmth and, in a positive way, normality. There’s no melodrama here, no fights; even Yuliana’s friends (seemingly all middle class apart from her) are basically good, kind kids.

Always sensitive to the effects of natural light, Fábrega and DP María Secco utilize a soft-hued palette in the intimate scenes, conveying a sense of comfort and calm. The non-professional cast are clearly at ease with the frequent closeups, which capture inner lives only hinted at in the dialogue, building audience sympathy.

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