They Are All Dead (2014) — Image via

They Are All Dead

Directed by Beatriz Sanchís (2014)

Director Beatriz Sanchís appears not to have restrained any of her ambition in creating her first feature, They Are All Dead (Todos están muertos). The film daringly weaves together elements of magic realism, family drama, coming-of-age story, and dark comedy, and it mostly works. A slow-burning film for the most part, but with a few surprises along the way, They Are All Dead definitely makes an impression with its twin stories of a son trying to figure out how he fits in to his mother’s world and a mother trying to learn how to be a real parent to her son.

They Are All Dead (2014) — Image via avalon.meAwkward 14-year-old Pancho (Cristian Bernal) lives with his mother Lupe (Elena Anaya) and his grandmother Paquita (Angélica Aragón) in the cramped house in Madrid where Lupe grew up. We learn that Lupe, a former rock star who was in a band with her brother Diego (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), has locked herself away in the house since causing Diego’s death in a drunk driving accident 15 years earlier. Lupe barely pays her son any attention, spending most of her few waking hours baking apple pies, apparently her source of income. This has left Paquita with the task of raising Pancho. But when Paquita gets some bad medical news, she realizes this state of affairs cannot go on and decides it is time for her daughter to heal.

Paquita is a superstitious woman, and her chosen method for activating Lupe’s healing process is to visit a spiritualist who agrees to summon Diego from the dead so he can wrap up his unfinished business. Surprisingly enough, it works; Lupe responds to a knock at the door, and it’s Diego, there to take up residence in the house, where only she can see him. Meanwhile, as Diego’s ghostly presence forces Lupe to confront her past, Pancho introduces another catalyst for change in the form of an older boy, Victor (Patrick Criado), whom he has tentatively befriended and who is starstruck when he finds out who Pancho’s mother is.

They Are All Dead (2014) — Image via avalon.meLooking to connect with both Victor and his mother, Pancho begins taking an interest in music, prompting Lupe to finally unblock the entrance to the basement that was her band’s practice space. Diego’s ghost starts spending most of his time there, overseeing Lupe’s clumsy first efforts to nurture her son. Having isolated herself from the rest of the world since she was still essentially a child, Lupe has little idea how to behave like an adult, resulting in some cringeworthy missteps. Things don’t always go swimmingly between Pancho and Victor either; it becomes clear that Pancho is attracted to Victor, whereas it remains ambiguous for most of the film whether Victor likes Pancho at all or is only interested in getting to know Lupe.

There is obviously a lot going on in They Are All Dead, including multiple subplots that I have not mentioned. Sanchís is mostly effective at holding it all together, using light humor to ease many of the tonal shifts. The other glue here is Anaya’s masterful portrayal of Lupe’s slow, awkward emergence from her cocoon. By the force of Anaya’s performance, Lupe’s perspective becomes the film’s dominant one, even as Pancho provides the expository and closing voiceovers. Also notable is the cinematography of Álvaro Gutiérrez, which uses subtle shifts in color, light, and distance to contrast the outside world with the strange alternative universe that is Paquita’s house, especially its mythical basement. After two screenings of They Are All Dead at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, Sanchís likely has more than a few Twin Cities film aficionados looking forward to her next feature.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.