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Alauda Ruiz de Azúa’s debut is an absorbing mother-daughter drama set on the Basque coast

Tender-hearted and acutely observed, Alauda Ruiz de Azúa’s debut Lullaby is an absorbing if flawed mother-daughter drama. Lullaby is about a woman who, after having a child of her own, reaches a new affinity with her mother: hardly a new theme, but it is handled by Ruiz de Azúa with sure-handedness, grace and wit. The writer-director smartly sidesteps cliches as she trains her lens on emotional truths.

Lullaby is strongest in the subtle and compassionate characterisation of its women

Additional proof that international recognition is on the up for Spain’s (in this case, Basque) young female directors, Lullaby arrives at Malaga via Berlin, where the Golden Bear was won by fellow Spaniard Carla Simon for Alcarras. Confirming the adage that the more specific a film’s details, the more universal it becomes, Lullaby looks likely to lull further festivals with its gentle charms.

Thirty-somethings Amaia (Laia Costa) and Javi (Mikel Bustamante) are struggling with the emotional fallout of having a baby. They are assisted and irritated in this by Amaia’s parents — the authoritative, pragmatic Begoña, who constantly reminds the couple of their failings (Susi Sanchez, a regular in Almodóvar’s recent films, whose best work has been done for the under-appreciated Spanish director Ramón Salazar) and the pleasant but useless Koldo (veteran Ramon Barea). The film’s early scenes make a fine, warts-and-all portrait of postnatal chaos, with a worn-out Amaia trying and failing to juggle precarious work and a crying baby while a surprisingly sprightly Javi makes lengthy work trips to raise the money they desperately need.

When Javi is away, Amaia cannot handle it alone. Following a scene in which the baby falls off the sofa, she guiltily heads, as so many young Spanish parents do, to her family home in a Basque seaside pueblo. This makes matters worse—until, in an unexpected development, Begoña falls ill, leading to a radical shift in the family dynamics and a greater understanding between Amaia and her mother. But this tight focus on mother and daughter in the second half means that, until its wondrous final seconds, the film sacrifices some of the spot-on credibility that has made it work so well so far.

Lullaby is strongest in the subtle and compassionate characterisation of its women: mothers who are neither heroines nor the victims of stereotype. Though this is nominally Amaia’s movie, Begoña is the dominant figure. Both actresses do terrific, nuanced work, particularly when they are together. Perhaps inevitably, the women are drawn with more compassion and light and shade, and undertake more compelling emotional journeys, than either Koldo, characterized by his wife as “a horrendous husband but a good father”, or Javi, who feels surplus to the requirements of both the family and the film. The Amaia-Javi relationship never really takes off, and its issues are resolved a little too hastily later on.

Atmospherically, things are appropriately claustrophobic, with events mostly unspooling in shadowy rooms: one of them brilliantly juxtaposes horror music on the TV with the presence of an angry, threatening Begoña. There are only occasional forays into the open air, one of which brings a skeleton out of the closet in the form of Iñaki (José Ramón Soroiz), an old flame of Begoña’s who will trigger Amaia’s deeper understanding of her mother.

Aranzazu Calleja’s gentle, piano-based score, lovely though it is, is so light of touch and sparingly employed that you wonder whether it needs to be there at all. The Spanish title translates as ‘Five Little Wolves’, a Spanish lullaby whose title could be a metaphor for its characters as they irritably nip at one another.

Production companies: Encanta Films, Sayaka Producciones, Buenapinta Media

International sales: Latido Films

Producers: Manuel Calvo, Nahikari Ipiña, Marisa Fernández Armenteros, Sandra Hermida

Art direction: Monica Ausin Seoane

Editing: Andrés Gil

Cinematography: Jon D. Dominguez

Music: Aranzazu Calleja

Main cast: Laia Costa, Susi Sanchez, Ramon Barea, Mikel Bustamante

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