Film Review: This Time Tomorrow

Lina Rodriguez's excellent sophomore feature overturns the longstanding male perspective of female teenage characters as little more than objects of desire.
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Lina Rodriguez’s This Time Tomorrow begins with a medium shot of a tree in what appears to be a botanical garden. The Colombian-Canadian filmmaker holds the shot for nearly three minutes, allowing the viewer to observe its trunk, as well as to listen to the wind rustling its leaves and that of other trees nearby. The trunk has a strange mark, and its girth suggests age, but mostly the audience is left to contemplate the relative darkness of the shot. It is obviously daylight, yet our perspective is of the lower part of the trunk and the surrounding grounds. No blue sky peeks through in the background. The view of the tree is as close as Rodriguez ever gets to an establishing shot in the film, which is about Adelaida (Laura Osma), the only child of middle-class couple Francisco (Francisco Zaldua) and Lena (Maruia Shelton).

Because a tree’s roots reach deep into the earth, and some, like the sequoia, reach heights of 380 feet, trees represent the world’s axis, and are symbols of regeneration and transformation. These arboreal wonders are the universal symbol of life. If the writer-director’s tree is an establishing shot, it makes an existential statement—and places us in the unfolding middle. Rodriguez cuts to Adelaida and her father watching television, “Ade” sprawled across the bed, and her father behind her, seated upright against the headboard. The 17-year-old keeps calling to her mother, and eventually Lena joins them. Again, the camera is in medium shot, and Rodriguez holds it for a minute or more. Ade’s sensuality is immediately apparent; she is the girl-woman of so many male fantasy movies there is no need to name them all.

In This Time Tomorrow, the aspects of Ade’s personality, her visage and her figure, that in other movies would cause her to be a sex object, are here explosive and even dangerously close to extinguishing themselves. Rodriguez treats Ade’s sexuality as nothing more than one part of the mix of teenage discontent and ennui that often excites parents to oppressive acts—and Francisco and Lena behave accordingly, at one point confining their daughter to her room. The movie then progresses to glimpses of Lena’s work, to Ade’s relationship with her parents, and to scenes of Ade and her best friend, a young woman who is more provocative than Ade. Rodriguez’s protagonist is by turns enigmatic, manipulative, loving and demanding of attention.

The filmmaker consistently employs long sequences, cutting only to move to the next sequence. Her handheld camera is an unblinking eye, in either medium shot or medium close-up for most of the movie, mimicking that “unfolding middle” or a story in progress, the nebulous “this time tomorrow.” The plot of This Time Tomorrow is significant in only one respect, and that is the fact that halfway through the movie the family suffers a great loss. Each of Rodriguez’s impressionistic vignettes before that loss depict a close-knit family tested by Ade’s roiling emotions, and afterward by Ade’s grief.

In her studied approach, the writer-director engages in what is perhaps one of the most important contemporary cinematic exercises, and that is overturning the male gaze. In probing the depths of Ade’s quest for identity, viewers forget the teenager’s telegenic charm, and in its place discover her incredible fragility as a human being. For instance, in one moment Ade articulates her disgust at Lena’s dour personality, and in another she asks her mother to cuddle next to her; in her grief, she shuts out her father, and then turns to him for forgiveness.

Rodriguez’s previous film, her debut feature Señoritas (2013), is centered on a young woman in her 20s and is in the same vein as This Time Tomorrow. It is also set in her hometown of Bogotá. While the filmmaker has been likened to the “Transcendental” auteurs, only her visual style is comparable. While Rodriguez is depicting Ade’s inner life, and her meditative style of storytelling casts a new light on aspects of her character’s teenage angst, the writer-director is not fundamentally interested in the sacred, or in spiritual truth.

Ade could not, for instance, be compared to Transcendental filmmaker Robert Bresson’s eponymous protagonist in Mouchette (1967). A more apt comparison, although not stylistically, would be Catherine Breillat’s girl films, especially 36 Fillette (1988). While Breillat’s focus is on sexual identity, her heroines are equally rebellious, and very consciously illustrate the female gaze. The Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta (1999) also comes to mind, again not stylistically but in the aim of these filmmakers to create contemporary and palpable character studies of complex female personalities. Visually, Rodriguez’s work is reminiscent of Julia Loktev’s in The Loneliest Planet, an equally brilliant portrait of the predicament of women in the guise of a slowly unfolding story of a couple’s hike through the Caucasus Mountains.

In a sequoia forest, the height of the trees prevent little more than glimpses of the spot where these giant evergreens meet the sky. It is only from the ground, from walking around a sequoia’s enormous trunk, that people feel its majesty. Tree trunks actually mask a beehive of activity five layers deep, from the outer bark to the heartwood, including one layer comprised of living cells that spread nutrients around the tree, and another that contains tiny, hollow columns that carry water up the length of the tree. If there is a transcendent aspect to Rodriguez’s film, it lies in Ade as a force of nature, although because of her youth, that claim does not ring true, and it objectifies Ade. It makes of her something that is too difficult to articulate, and precisely what Rodriguez is working against in this sublime drama.

For Westerners, a tree may bring to mind the one in the Garden of Eden, of which Adam tells God, “…she gave me of the tree and I did eat” (Genesis, 3:12). Adam is speaking of Eve, who represents the gift of consciousness and self-knowledge. At the end of This Time Tomorrow, Rodriguez lifts her camera above the tree that opened her movie in order to mark Ade’s individuation. It is an equivocal moment, not a transcendent one. This time tomorrow, Ade will face the travails of womanhood.

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