A common thread that connects most mainstream Hollywood flicks is the implied sensationalism of the everyday. Unlike the flesh-and-blood humans we encounter while going about our own banal existences, the big-screen characters are decisive, passionate, lovable—repulsively “normal,” plastic.
Not so in The Empty Hours (Las Horas Muertas). And the change of pace was refreshing as hell.
The film chronicles the two or so weeks Sebastián—a 17-year-old kid from Xalapa played by the sufficiently awkward and pubescent Kristyan Ferrer—spends taking care of his ailing Uncle Gerry’s “motelito,” a love shack where couples from miles around come to screw on the reg. Aside from having to fill in for the absentee cleaning lady and getting all hot and bothered by the motel’s constant soundtrack of moans and thumps, Sebastián seems content, if beyond bored. He openly stares at the launderer’s breasts, shoots the shit with the nightwatchman and his dog, even nearly befriends the kid who tends the coconut stand across the street from La Palma Real. But it’s not enough during long days sprinkled with awkward business transactions.
One of those clients is the twenty-something Miranda, who checks into La Palma with her married lover Mario, a sleazy character who doesn’t get much screen time. Expertly portrayed by Adriana Paz, Miranda is a cocky real estate agent whose only business in the area is to sell some beachside condos to a less-than-interested clientele. Mario is her distraction, her company—his booty calls seem to be all that’s keeping her sane. And after Mario stands Miranda up one afternoon, she decides to chat up Sebastián. The two strike up an awkward friendship, shooting the breeze about Sebastián’s nonexistent love life and the impact Miranda’s career has had on her own prospects (“I’m like a sailor, with a man at every port … [but] I think the marriage train has passed.”). When Mario bails on a dinner date, Miranda cruises up to La Palma in her beat-up orange Beetle and steals away Sebastián for a tequila-fueled night on the town. She has too much to drink, and he drives her back to the motel to sleep it off after she flops over trying to put on lipstick in the bar bathroom. She comes on to Sebastián (whispering “I love you, Mario” while kissing his neck), who is paralyzed and quickly makes his escape.
In the film’s most tender moment, he takes off her shoes, pulls her dress up over a nip-slip and tucks her into bed. But in true Mrs. Robinson fashion (**SPOILER ALERT), the two do hook up. And though Sebastián doesn’t seem to realize it’s just sex, they share an intimate moment analyzing a stain on the ceiling, which Miranda swears is a mermaid. Sebastián argues it’s an iguana. And though that afternoon is the last the pair spend together, the filmmakers make clear that—much like they would for any of us—the days they’ve shared together are both substantial and influential. They continue thinking about each other, even as they move on to their next attempt at an encounter with another person. For however short a period, they have saved one another.
Aesthetically, the film is breathtaking, melding Veracruz vistas with the intensely saturated colors of a small Mexican town and decidedly average-looking actors. Interest isn’t created with artistic shots (the camera hardly moves) but by the odd habits and interactions of the films average characters. But you’ll recognize everyone you know in the awkward leads, the flirty laundress or creepy barflies. Because they’re not over-the-top—their weirdness is genuine, all the stranger for its similarity to reality. Every shot, every uncomfortable instant (Sebastián watching a beer top crawling across the floor, for example, lifting it to see a cockroach underneath, and plopping the cap back on its back; he scuttles along) communicates the utter boredom and loneliness we all grapple with, constantly.
The film’s one weak spot was in Miranda’s backstory. Sebastián is alone, except for the stolen moments he shares with coworkers and neighbors. Lucha the launderer is alone, save for the minutes she spends fucking an unnamed dude in the spare motel room. Coco-seller Jacinto is 12, and even he is solitary. But the film has to invent some excuse for Miranda’s loneliness, the fact that she is so often alone. She references her perpetual singlehood and playboy ways, dismissing Mario as another conquest. Then she cries when he stands her up. And on the one hand, her outward strength is endearing. On the other—we don’t see Sebastián grieving after Miranda rejects what would have been their parting kiss. Miranda is the most developed character in the film, and it detracted from my viewing experience, at least, to defer to played-out stereotypes in an effort to make her more acceptably feminine. But the less obvious implications of the film do a good job of eclipsing that lapse.
The banality of the film is consuming. Mexican director Aarón Fernández Lesur whispers in our ear that it’s this tireless boredom that propels the mesmerizing moments, the very ones that punctuate our banality. We’ve been trained to expect constant excitement, endless pools of inner passion. But we’ve forgotten that the ordinary is also beautiful.