The beauty of Michel Franco’s new film “April’s Daughter” is that it captures the light of the Mexican sun. From the first scene, in a beach house in Puerto Vallarta, with three young people making breakfast in the kitchen, cracking eggs, to the climatic scene of confrontation between mother and daughter in the street, the film is luminous with the white glow that I know well from my own sojourns in the country. No matter that the subject---a girl’s trouble-provoking pregnancy---is dark. It is a pleasure to watch each scene, and indulge in the clean simple look and gentle pacing.
The story is as simple as the light: an underage girl becomes pregnant, and her mother comes to help. The help she offers seems at first to be very kind, and then shifts, gradually, into something more manipulative, and inadvertently cruel.
Throughout we have a glimpse of a common trauma in Mexico today: the fractured family. The mother is alone, having been left by her husband for a much younger woman. The father could not care less about his pregnant daughter. The boy who tries to take on his own paternal role with his child has the spine of a fish when it comes to assuming responsibility for his girlfriend. It is a world where men fail to live up to the role of the paternal protector, and women are inept to be mothers. The newborn, at one point, has to fend for herself.
I asked Michel Franco at his press conference in Cannes what inspired his film.
“A story I read in the newspaper,” the young director said steadily, in the same sincere voice I remembered from the last time I interviewed him, about his stellar (and icily cold) film “Chronic” (2015). “It was about a teenage girl who lived in the street with her baby. There are many such stories in Mexico…. “
What makes Franco’s rendition of this story curious is that there seems to be no judgement about the characters: the mother’s surprisingly bad actions, the boy’s moral weakness, and the girl’s initial ineptness to deal with her situation are related as if just mere “facts of life.”
Franco commented: “I like grey area films. This story of a fifteen year old girl had everything in it: the future (i.e. the child), youth and a disaster in the making.”
Emma Suárez, the famed Spanish actress, commented on her own lack of judgement of the character she plays in the film: the mother. “The mother is not a bad person. Every mother learns on the job. The issue with her is that she has no ethical outlook to inform her choices, so she just acts without reflection at each moment.”
“Never do I want to judge my characters,” added Franco.
These comments aside, there is an error in Franco’s film and that lies in the fact that actually there is indeed a moral judgement demanded by the film, that is neither pointed enough (as in “Chronic”) nor conspicuously absent enough to steer the spectator. We don’t know if “April’s Daughter” is a critique of selfishness and irresponsibility, a portrait of the Mexican family today, a misogynist replay of the Mrs Robinson myth, a tale of vanquishing (the girl does get gumption), or rather just an odd story to tell. The director could have pushed further to get to what motivates his interest (and ours) in this particular messy situation.
After all, there is a baby in the film and her future should concern us.