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No Country for Young Women

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MOVIE REVIEW
Hummingbirds (2023)

The recent “Cusp,” another documentary about rowdy Texan teenagers, was directed by adults, and the focus ended up being how sexual violence shapes young lives. In “Hummingbirds,” the directors, Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras, are also the stars; and the movie follows them around their adventures in Laredo, Texas, in the summer of 2019. The primary force shaping their lives is the pressure of living in the borderlands, of feeling pulled between nationalities (one of the directors was undocumented at the time of filming) and being more radical politically than many of the neighbors. “Cusp” was told from the outside. “Hummingbirds” is told from the inside, with the decision made to keep the imperfections in; and its considerable charm is due to that rawness.

Silvia and Beba are of the age where every experience has potential, such close friends one gives the other a surprisingly good stick-and-poke tattoo, and the thrill of being themselves hasn’t worn off. It’s fun to hang out at the bowling alley; it’s fun to try all the snacks at the street carnival; it’s fun to go to Walmart and make sarcastic comments about the signage. Occasionally they race each other with the cry, “Last one’s a Republican!” All the good cheer is matched with deeper issues, of course. We spend time with only one sister from their entire families. It’s made slowly apparent that they met at an abortion clinic and have bonded by virtue of having some similarly difficult childhood experiences. Both spend time doing pro-choice work, though the film’s main setpiece, of them and a friend donning dark clothes to vandalize an antiabortion lawn sign, is clearly just kids larking about. During the escapade, Silvia frets about their ears being uncovered, leading their friend to remark laconically, “Suspect has small ears.” It was the best deadpan line of the entire Berlinale.

The Mexican border is within touching distance and its pull is like a magnet for the city. This is not always a positive. Beba’s mother was deported when she was a child, causing the entire family to relocate to Mexico for a while, before they all made the trip back over the border to resume their American lives. Silvia is an American but not everyone in their family is; and both young people are badly affected by the sensation of not having their feet firmly on the ground. The sense of a double identity is further reflected by having two heroines. Beba and Silvia’s friendship is obviously a wonderful thing for them both, but having an identity so devoted to another person can make forging your own individual path a little tricky. It was too soon to think about that when the film was made, of course. They were too busy writing each other poetry and singing meaningful songs – there’s enough singalongs to the radio a fair use lawyer was thanked in the credits – and generally basking in the glory of being themselves. This could be irritating, but somehow it is not. There’s little structure to the film beyond this slice of life, but when the life is this gleeful with this much hope for the future, that’s more than enough.

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