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Life in the Dumps

Courtesy of TIFF

Daughter of Rage (2022)

A swarm of kids on a Nicaraguan landfill approach as an ambulance opens its back doors and hurls out what are clearly bags of medical waste. The kids pounce, and to their delight discover that one of the bags contains body parts. As they begin a mock fight with some amputated arms, one of them shouts, “The dead are here!” For a grim opener, you could hardly do better, though “Daughter of Rage” is not a macabre horror story. It’s just a run-of-the-mill horror story, about what poverty does to an 11-year-old girl whose mother cannot protect her.

That doesn’t mean Lilibeth (Virginia Sevilla Garcia) isn’t trying her best. She has raised Maria (Ara Alejandra Medal) in a shanty built from things scavenged from the landfill and tells her stories about the Cat Woman, a fighting spirit that helps unhappy women get what they want. But her best unfortunately hasn’t included sending Maria to school. There’s neither time nor money for that; every day is a fight to scavenge enough to sell for food. On top of this the government is about to take over garbage collection, meaning their livelihood is about to be destroyed. Maria’s main friend is their dog, who has recently birthed a litter of puppies the local gangster wants to buy. Lilibeth owes him money, and selling him the puppies will clear her debts. Maria loves the puppies; she takes them to the beach to play, and finds them food to eat. At night she listens to podcasts about the universe on her phone while Lilibeth goes on her rounds to sell the day’s discoveries.

But the food Maria gave the puppies was from the landfill, and rancid; all the puppies die; and Lilibeth is beside herself. She instructs Maria to pack a bag and leave the mother dog behind. They go on a long journey, hitching rides in the back of trucks, until they arrive in a remote guarded compound run by a couple, Raul (Noé Hérnandez) and Rosa (Diana Sedano). There’s a discussion between the adults, which Maria is not party to, until Lilibeth reappears and tells Maria she’ll be back for her as soon as possible. She gives her daughter a hug and a scavenged necklace, and leaves without looking back.

The compound is guarded because it’s a scrapyard whose workers are all children. Maria is horrified, and refuses to work, but Raul and Rosa are firm – they don’t like it either, but no one on their land lives for free. If she wants food she has to earn it. There’s no physical violence; and you might even go so far as to say there is kindness, but the truth is Maria finds herself a slave, working all day with no protective gear of any kind. The fear in the movie, which Laura Baumeister directed from her own script (the first time a woman has directed a movie in Nicaragua), is not that other people might harm Maria. The adults she meets, even Rosa and Raul, are concerned for the small girl angrily alone by herself. The trouble is no one has anything to spare. Not food and certainly not money, meaning their good wishes and kindness don’t help much. Bad luck. The sense from the adults is that all wish they could do more for this kid, but they must conserve the very little they have for themselves. And that means Maria is now alone in the world, which is bigger and scarier than she had previously realized.

One of the other children at the scrapyard is an orphan named Tadeo (Carlos Gutierrez), who takes such a shine to Maria that the other kids tease him about it. He is able to comfort her when she worries about Lilibeth, and leads the other kids in playing games designed to cheer her up. But he is also resigned to his fate, which Maria is not. She wants to be with her mother, no matter the cost, and is willing to take some great risks to make that happen. Ms. Medal’s performance is extraordinarily upsetting because she’s so calm in the face of all this horror, but Ms. Medal makes it clear that Maria’s boldness is a choice, not childish ignorance. She is upset but not scared, worried for her mother but not for herself. This means dangers apparent to the adults she disregards. All that matters is finding Lilibeth; all other problems are secondary. And the horror quietly mounts, and mounts.

All of this is to say this is an extremely watchable, very frightening, determinedly excellent movie about what life is like for a child when there is no safety net of any kind, and exactly the kind of discovery film festival (like the Toronto International Film Festival) are made for. The situations in which Maria finds herself are awful because they are awful, and not because the adults around her are trying to make things worse. They just don’t have the resources to make them any better. If Lilibeth had had the money to live elsewhere or send Maria to school, this mess could have been avoided in the first place, but Ms. Baumeister and her cinematographer Teresa Kuhn are not interested in polemic. Maria’s loneliness and hunger speak for themselves, but her refusal to give up is what makes “Daughter of Rage” so compelling. Life may well crush Maria, but it hasn’t done it yet.


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