‘Tótem’: Lila Avilés’ Vivid Tapestry of a Family Processing Grief Through Joy

A film like Lila Avilés’ “Tótem” can catch an audience off guard. It begins with scenes of familial living that could signal the beginning of any standard, formulaic drama. As it progresses we soon realize this is not going to be another predictable film, or even one driven by the commercial standards of Hollywood plotting. Avilés aims to envelop us in the rhythm of life as it surrounds ‘Tótem’s’ characters. There are some key story elements and a reason for everyone to be gathered in this film’s central spot, but what matters is how everyone speaks to each other, makes confessions or represses emotions. Most of the time, “Tótem” takes the vantage point of children. They witness our social rituals with the innocence of not fully deciphering their meaning.

The setting is Mexico. Seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes) makes a wish while driving across a bridge with her mother, Lucia (Iazua Larios). Her wish is that her father may live. It soon becomes clear why when they arrive at the home where Tona (Mateo Garcia) is ill and clearly dying. Surrounding him is a whole family buzzing with preparing his birthday party, which one suspects he didn’t ask for. His sister Nuria (Montserrat Marañon) juggles getting ready with cooking and looking after her own small daughter. Cruz (Teresita Sánchez) attends to Tona, who is a painter but has asked that his artwork around the house be replaced with paintings that he and his sisters gazed at as children. Tono’s widowed father is a psychiatrist attending patients amid the chaos, speaking to them with an electrolarynx. 

These are just a small dose of the immense gallery of people who walk through “Tótem.” Shot with a handheld starkness, the film serves as multiple things. It’s a portrait of middle class Mexican life where the family unit remains tight and everyone knows each other’s true selves. Arguments over every detail erupt. On a more universal, intimate level, it’s about the chaos of living, as seen from Sol’s point of view. Her ears catch snippets of conversation carrying weight she can’t fathom, like discussions over there being no money left for Tona’s treatment. The point is constantly made that he seems comfortable with mortality and just wants more morphine. It would be fascinating to learn just how closely the performance stuck to Avilés’ screenplay, since the jokes, insults and overall banter have such genuine spontaneity. Moments of humor are truthful snippets, as when the kids play around with grandpa’s electrolarynx.

Since her 2018 debut “The Chambermaid,” about a working woman’s life in a luxurious Mexico City hotel, Avilés has been one of her country’s most unique voices in cinema. She does not go for the sensationalism or melodrama of other directors, even if she is concerned with issues of class as are so many filmmakers in Latin America. She is intrigued by people. “Tótem” likes to observe those small moments that are full of more life than we think, like a child playing with their mother’s bathroom items. A hand grazes a cricket on a leaf. Tona stands under a shower possibly thinking about how many more times life will allow him this pleasure. Sol gradually begins to find corners and sit in solitude, as if she’s beginning to feel the inexplicable weight of what everyone in the house is dealing with. She also collects snails and talks to animals with the cheer of a child indulging in their imagination. Naíma Sentíes is an astounding child actor in what she conveys through pure expressions.

Once the party kicks off, there are no shockers or sudden developments. It’s simply life on film. Bohemians recount indigenous legends or recite poetry. On that level, “Tótem” is also a unique portrait of Mexican life in a film market where American stereotypes of our southern neighbor are still dominant. Nobody here is obsessing over migration or cartel violence. Like everyone everywhere, this family faces grief, disappointments and many lasting joys. Tona is not in despair or asking for others to weep over his situation. Instead, the final moments of this film become a genuine celebration of what it means to come together with friends and loved ones, share some jokes and toast tomorrow. “Tótem” manages to encompass in one home how life can be warm, sad and exciting all at once.

Tótem” releases Jan. 26 in New York and Feb. 2 in Los Angeles.