Its fractious tale of father-son bonding may be familiar, but Argentinian helmer Natalia Garagiola’s debut impresses with its sober mood and emotional tenor.
There’s a regal, rolling sense of great-outdoors scale to “Hunting Season,” a confident, clean-lined debut from Argentinian writer-director Natalia Garagiola, that only puts the internal shuttering of its young protagonist in starker relief. Hitting its emotional marks with mature clarity — if little in the way of surprise — this quietly bruised coming-of-age story sees a volatile, rugby-playing schoolboy through his grief for one parent and his estrangement from another, while treating his healing process as a work in progress to the end and beyond. If there’s a slightly pat arc to the tetchy father-son bond driving the narrative that smacks of indie script workshopping, Garagiola’s direction is more impressively watchful and flinty, drawing keen, complex performances from her two well-matched leads.
“Hunting Season” is especially notable as the first foreign feature backed by the U.S.-based Gamechanger Films, an enterprise dedicated exclusively to funding female-helmed projects — Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation” and So Yong Kim’s “Lovesong” among them. Their involvement enhances the distribution prospects of a film already off to a flying start on the festival circuit: Premiering at Venice, where it topped the Critics’ Week competition, it went on to be named best in show by the Macao fest jury. The film certainly acts as a rejoinder to any developers inclined to limit distaff directors to “women’s stories.” Garagiola has a sharp, perceptive understanding of distinctly masculine insecurities, and her male leads are drawn with callused specificity.
The opening beats thrust viewers directly into the addled, angry headspace of Nahuel (auspicious first-timer Lautaro Bettoni), a strapping, scowlingly handsome teenager introduced in the middle of a violent rugby-field altercation that gets him expelled from his Buenos Aires private school. There are mitigating mental-health circumstances — Nahuel’s mother recently died from cancer — but nonetheless, his kindly stepfather Bautista (Boy Olmi) decides a change of scene is called for. The boy is effectively exiled to the expansively tangled, gorgeous wilds of Patagonia, where his long-absent biological father Ernesto (Germán Palacios) lives with his young second family, making a modest living as a game ranger.
All of the expected tensions and conflicts ensue, with the age-old city-mouse-and-country-mouse dynamic adding further friction to an already fractious family reunion. Nahuel and Ernesto scarcely know each other, and with the cut-up younger still raw from the lost of one parent, he has no room in his heart to welcome another: After describing the devastation of grief to Ernesto, Nahuel brusquely concludes, “I don’t want to ever feel that for you.” Garagiola’s script is at its best when trading in such brute, from-the-gut honesty; as these two wary, guarded men incrementally but inevitably learn from, and thaw to, each other, the film enters familiar redemptive territory that’s a little less bracing.
The actors largely keep sentimentality at bay, however. Palacios takes his time to reveal deep reserves of guilt and caring beneath an eggshell exterior, while Bettoni is a memorable find. Casting directors may take note of the newcomer’s striking, brooding initial presence, but there’s much more here than sullen attitude, as Nahuel’s pain gradually overwhelms his self-protective stoicism.
A slightly tighter edit could have tempered the predictability of “Hunting Season’s” narrative progression, however moving it is, though sparse restraint is the order of the day in other technical departments. Composer Juan Tobal aptlt wraps the solemn action in severe, resonant strings, while Fernando Lockett’s calm, overcast cinematography maximizes the scratchy, rambling sprawl of the Patagonian landscape without overly romanticizing it. Resisting the magic-hour allure to shooting in weathered limestone tones, he and Garagiola convey how the beauty of the wilderness can be as isolating to one person as it is inviting to another.