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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Nervous Translation movie review: home alone, with only her imagination for company

Nervous Translation green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Shireen Seno’s portrait of a remarkably imaginative and self-contained child at a specifically 1980s Filipino moment is full of both charming whimsy and a delicately observed, melancholy universality.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about girls and women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Eight-year-old Yael (Jana Agoncillo) has long, lazy afternoons to fill when she is home alone after school, a daily reverie that writer-director Shireen Seno depicts with a delicately observed melancholy and a charming whimsy reminiscent of the films of Miranda July. A remarkably imaginative and self-contained child, Yael is often left to her own devices: her father is away working in Saudi Arabia — though the audiotaped “letters” he sends home, which she listens to over and over again, help fuel her daydreaming, even if she cannot quite understand the adult longing he expresses in them; and when her mother (Angge Santos) returns home from work each evening, she demands “30 minutes no talking” from the child. The heart breaks for Yael.

It is the late 1980s here, in the Philippines after the ouster of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and so it’s a very specific a moment of upheaval in Filipino history that Seno is grappling with. But everything in Nervous Translation we see through Yael’s eyes, and she of course has no idea what’s going on beyond the screen door of her house. The banging of that door, the border between home and everywhere else, is a rather forlorn running motif that emphasizes the universality here, too, particularly of Yael’s child’s perspective among busy, distracted, and just ordinarily self-absorbed adults. As a once odd and fanciful child (and now an odd and fanciful adult), I saw a lot of myself in Yael.

Nervous Translation

Among her other ways to while away long afternoons, Yael cooks tiny meals on a tiny, candle-heated stove.

The title of the film is as mysterious as little Yael herself: her nameless loneliness and borderline emotional abandonment begins to manifest in odd magical-realism dreams and strange obsessions, as with the pen she sees advertised on television that promises to help translate human feeling to the page. She loves to write, you see, but she’s having some trouble finding the right words…

A clearly small budget prompted Seno to make some remarkably effective visual choices, and the result is an audacious film with a compact power centered on its small, sad heroine. Little Yael is someone I won’t soon forget.

Nervous Translation screens tonight at JW3 in London. See the film’s official site for future UK dates and cities.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other releases.

green light 4 stars

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Nervous Translation (2019) | directed by Shireen Seno
UK/Ire release: Apr 14 2019

BBFC: rated PG (mild sex references)

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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