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Celia Rico Clavellino’s intimate Spanish drama tracks a troubled mother-daughter relationship

With Little Loves, Celia Rico Clavellino deepens the exploration of mother/daughter relationships that began with 2018’s well-received Journey To A Mother’s Room. Similarly quiet, understated and driven by two fine performances, and similarly underpinned by the director’s ability to extract meaning and nuance from the apparently insignificant, this is extremely relatable, low-key drama.

The downside of this approach is that the tedium of its characters’ lives sometimes spills over into the viewer experience, especially in its first half: the upside is that such a rendering of these two frustrated lives gives the film a rare intimacy and credibility, which should appeal to domestic audiences when the film opens in Spain on March 8 after its Malaga premiere.

We first meet the ageing Ani (Adriana Ozores) living in comfortable independence with her dog in what was formerly the family’s countryside home. Having decided to repaint the building, Ani falls and breaks her leg, meaning that daughter Teresa (Maria Vazquez), in her early 40s, has to travel from Madrid to help out. The pair are forced into a cohabitation which will lead to a subtle reappraisal of their relationship.

Looking after an ungrateful wheelchair-bound mother, Teresa soon learns, is no way to spend your summer holiday. Initially Ani is resentful of Teresa’s presence, and the script is especially good on the passive-aggressive dynamics of Ani’s constant nagging at every available opportunity over trivial but telling details. She instructs Teresa, for example, not to clean the frying pan in the dishwasher, because it leaves behind a coating of fat, and offers her a remedy for her supposedly-smelly breath.

Teresa spends her evenings posing for selfies for a supposed lover, messaging him songs which include the BeeGees’ ‘Massachusetts’. She tells her mother that the man lives in the US and that she plans to go and see him, though it’s pretty clear from the outset that this is not quite true. Teresa’s seems to be a thoroughly miserable existence, and the atmosphere of gloomy oppression threatens to overwhelm her, the viewer and the film alike until the arrival of the engaging Jonas (Aimar Vega) and his father to take over the painting of the house.

Wannabe actor Jonas, who feels like a surrogate son to Ani and Teresa, is another dreamer who is unlikely to go far. But he brings some much-needed freshness and perspective to the women’s’ lives, and before long he is reading to Ani from the books on her shelves and innocently nudging the women to a deeper understanding of their relationship to one another.

Little Loves is scripted and shot with an attention to detail that might easily appear pretentious and is sometimes as stifling as the heat which beats down on the house’s white walls. Motifs are picked up, exploited and then dropped to a variety of ends: the need for outside help for Ani involves the buying of robot vacuum cleaner, to comic effect, while Teresa’s discovery and conservation of a Neolithic tooth at a nearby archeological dig suggests an inability to abandon the ancient ways.

Luckily, such symbolism is always embedded in the natural flow of things and, most of the time, Clavellino is training her gaze on the small, everyday details that can reveal so much – the glances, the expressions, and, crucially, the perfectly-modulated silences. Fernando Franco’s editing adds to the sense that this film is slow, but always busy. DoP Santiago Recaj exploits the shadows and light of a large rural country home to good but unshowy effect.

Ozores is solid as the embittered matriarch, taking out her frustrations on the person closest to her in a way that’s likely to resonate strongly with viewers in Spain and probably elsewhere too. Vazquez, consolidating her Goya-nominated turn in last year’s Matria, delivers a performance of quietly compelling intensity as a woman whose entire life seems to have been moulded by other’s expectations of her. These two women do love one another but that love is freighted with anxieties, and everything about Vazquez’s performance subtly reminds us of that.

Production companies: Arcadia Motion Pictures, Viracocha, Noodles

International sales: Latido Films

Producers: Sandra Tapia Diaz, Ibon Cormenzana, Ignasi Estape, Ángel Durandez, Cleber Beretta Custodio, Francisco Celma

Cinematography: Santiago Recaj

Production design: Monica Bernuy

Editing: Fernando Franco

Main cast: Maria Vazquez, Adriana Ozores, Aimar Vega

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