Preparing to screen this Mexican horror flick for a second time, I couldn't recall very much about it, including whether it was any good. Granted, my first viewing was six months ago at a festival, which are always liable to induce forgetfulness, and my memory isn't what it once was. But after watching it again, it's no wonder it left a faint impression: We Are What We Are is a superficially provocative movie that tries way too hard to be memorable. Horror aficionados will be tantalized before walking away unsatisfied, while Ma and Pa Cinephile are apt to find there is not enough substance to ground the gory flourishes and overheated accents.
A melodrama drenched in horror condiments, writer/director Jorge Michel Grau's maiden full-length feature hints at the idea cannibalism is an apt metaphor for the personality differences that fuel familial dysfunction and also impair the socialization process. Sounds plausible, if not appetizing. Yet when both sides of the comparison are half-baked, it's difficult to detect anything of nutritional value or taste flavors exotic enough to warrant a second helping. Ultimately, the movie's streaks of dark humor count as wasted entertainment calories.
In a housing project in Mexico City, three feral teenagers are bereft and panicky after their father, a watch repairman, dies. (The dark, greenish goo he vomits before expiring—while ogling bikini-wearing mannequins in a mall—doesn't augur well.) Who will fill his shoes as provider? An especially worrisome question since putting food on the table has a distinct meaning in this household. The eldest, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), is a sensitive introvert, while his younger brother Julian (Alan Chávez) is a rash hothead. Their sister Sabina (Miriam Balderas) plays them against each other, both to see who is most worthy of assuming the paterfamilias mantle and for her own kicks. As with her siblings, her hormones are raging, but as a girl her contact with the outside world is limited and her opportunities for experimentation and release are the most stifled.
Their mother Patricia (Carmen Beato) is even more stressed and discombobulated. Over time, her qualms about the family's diet of whores and other lowlifes have grown—not to mention her bitterness over her late husband's habit of screwing food before they partake of it. From a narrative perspective, the film's main weakness is its lack of information about the ceremony the family engages in before chowing down. (Spoiler alert: The fact they never get to eat is essential to the story.) Without some clues about the origins of their taste for human flesh, it's all rather arbitrary, particularly since the movie doesn't hold water as a parable about poverty and economic deprivation.
Now for the first time, it's up to Mama and the kids to fill the larder, so to speak. Alfredo and Julian rustle a pack of street urchins under a traffic overpass and then target streetwalkers (like father, like son), to their mother's disgust. And while the boys go-a-hunting and everyone squabbles over what, or rather who is, for dinner, a pair of police detectives mount a criminal investigation, triggered by the human finger that was discovered in Papa's stomach during an autopsy. The graphic violence escalates as the family's hunger rises and the outside world starts to close in. Eventually, Alfredo decides to follow his own path in the search for sustenance, which leads to a gay discotheque; and Patricia feels compelled to unleash her own sexual charms in order to entrap a meal.
The link between sex and food, desire and survival, that runs through We Are What We Are has terrific potential yet hasn't been allowed to set in Grau's screenplay or his hysterical, if skilled, directing. The film's strong incest vibe and the way it mingles the stuff of soap operas (or telenovelas) with the pseudo-moralistic carnage of, say, Saw is all for naught, because the tone is inconsistent. The morbid humor is undercut by the pose that there's something weighty going on. Grau's use of a string quartet on the soundtrack can be counted as an example of the movie's pretension because it's not clear such tropes are being deployed tongue-in-cheek or for parody.
The film has an explicit intention to shock, and a few early scenes do, but We Are What We Are comes off as a big, self-serious tease—silly rather than scary or unnerving. Hats off to Grau for attempting something relatively ambitious; he's a talent we'll hear from again. Maybe next time he'll clarify his intentions and make a movie that has genuine bite. A zestier title will also help it stand out.
Cast: Francisco Barreiro, Alan Chávez, Paulina Gaitan, Carmen Beato, Jorge Zarate and Esteban Soberanes
Director/Screenwriter: Jorge Michel Grau
Producer: Nicolás Celis
Genre: Horror/Drama/Thriller; Spanish-language, subtitled
Running time: 90 min
Release date: February 18 NY