The sunbaked, drought-stricken terrain of southeast India is a major determinant of the action in P S Vinothraj’s beautifully crafted, precisely plotted debut, “Pebbles.” Taking a simple premise with all the focus and penetration of a perfectly constructed short story, the writer-director transforms the drama of a young boy dragged between villages by his abusive alcoholic father into a larger, unforced statement about toxic patriarchy, limited resources, and the silent, enduring place of women as enablers of life. Boasting an exquisite use of framing and a deeply sympathetic, never cloying child as protagonist, “Pebbles” deserves widespread promotion.
It’s fortunate that Tamil celebrities of the caliber of actress Nayanthara and director Vignesh Shivan boarded as producers, guaranteeing a certain level of attention at least in their home state of Tamil Nadu. Vinothraj’s film, just over an hour long without the credits, is the kind of small-scale independent Indian production all too often lost following an initial flurry of film festival attention; hopefully, the success of a few Indian series on streaming sites will make larger audiences curious about vibrant regional cinema in the subcontinent.
The film is cunningly divided into episodes that give context and broaden the scope beyond a reductive father-son drama. Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyan) storms into a school to grab his kid Velu (Chella Pandi), vulgarly shouting that he’s going to drag his wife back from her family’s village. The intense heat together with a heightened level of alcohol in his blood keeps him at a simmering degree of malevolence, including on the bus they take to his in-laws. Once there, hurling abuse both physical and verbal, Ganapathy is told his wife went home, so he turns back, threatening to kill her. Helpless, Velu rips up the return bus tickets in anger and as a delaying tactic, forcing them to walk back under the punishing sun.
Velu has just one line, but he doesn’t need to speak. The boy’s eyes, silently registering his father’s abuse, convey everything needed, from bewilderment and hurt to determination and resistance. He’s the story’s moral core, powerless in the face of his father’s rage yet aware of right and wrong and the destructive nature of wounded patriarchal impotence. In the most natural-seeming way, Vinothraj moves beyond the narrow focus of these two figures with brief yet significant looks at the people they casually encounter. These include a young mother on the bus (Banu Priya), her exhausted fixed gaze barely altered by the baby’s cries, and two gossiping villagers whose conversation organically fills in details about Ganapathy and his wife.
For audiences squeamish about animals being harmed, it does look like we see some live rats get skewered on the ends of roasting sticks. Though disturbing to many eyes, the scene of course is an accurate depiction of the lengths to which impoverished families must go to ensure survival. To undercut any negative emotion, the director includes a magical moment when a little girl, Ganga (Dharshini), tosses helicopter seeds in the air, their whirling descent accompanied by her delighted giggles. It’s not prettifying poverty but rather humanizes it, forcing viewers to look beyond categorizing the family as “the rat eaters.”
The region’s dry, flat landscape is ideal for the widescreen, but it’s the way the director and his two DPs use the frame that makes “Pebbles” such a rewarding visual experience. Keenly aware of what needs to be shown, they remove any superfluity and yet there’s never a sense of being denied information. Brief occasional switches to handheld p.o.v. angles reflect the characters’ emotional states, while two overhead drone shots reinforce an understanding of how this landscape defines the lives here, while also offering potent compositional pleasures.