dvd review: El Bola ***

More important than the Spanish film El Bola is the independent film revolution it might spark. El Bola is the first release in a new monthly film club called Film Movement.

The creation of Hollywood producer Larry Meistrich (Sling Blade), Film Movement is a way, at least in theory, to bring art-house films to the suburbs. Given the fact that entries into prestigious film festivals like Cannes or Sundance are often released only in New York and Los Angeles, if at all, Meistrich needed a cost-efficient way to give independent film lovers their fix. He also wanted to help indie directors share their visions with more than the same two urban markets.

Film Movement is Meistrich’s solution, combining a film’s theatrical run with its DVD release. The club releases one movie a month, in select theaters in a handful of major markets, and nationwide on DVD, thereby fulfilling Meistrich’s desire to spread independent films across the country.

Movie buffs in Montana may read about Sundance winners online, but they would most likely never get to see the actual films, except for the few that received major distribution and make it to Blockbuster Video.
El Bola, a quaint movie from first-time writer/director Achero MaOas, is an excellent choice for the club’s first film. The winner of Spain’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, it is very intelligent, and features some of the best performances from child actors in years.

The title character (El Bola is Spanish for “Pellet,” the boy’s nickname) is 12- years old, and lives a seemingly normal life in Spain. He becomes friends with a new boy at school, Alfredo, and their relationship is the basis for the film.

The main theme behind El Bola is family. Alfredo’s father is a tattoo artist, a profession most viewers will immediately associate with being macho. Pellet’s father owns a hardware store, where Pellet spends much of his time working. MaOas builds brilliantly on the preconceptions that most viewers will have of the boys’ families. They are exact opposites of what we expect.

Alfredo’s family is loving and joyous. The times that Pellet spends with
Alfredo and his family are some of the only places in the movie where he smiles. Pellet’s own family situation, on the other hand, is not as glamorous. His aging grandmother lives with them, requiring constant care from his bitter mother. The father seems merely strict throughout the first half of the movie, but we then find out that he has beaten Pellet for years.

El Bola walks the thin line between an excellent emotional drama and a cheesy after school special. If MaOas had pressed the issue a little harder, the audience could have easily been annoyed at the heavy-handed attempt at dramatics. Instead of a dark and dreary tale of child abuse, MaOas adds plenty of lighter moments reminiscent of 1992’s Radio Flyer. One of the best scenes in the movie has Alfredo and Pellet, who have just met recently, spending a day at an amusement park. They ride the roller coasters and other attractions, both trying to impress the other by pretending the big drops don’t scare them.

From the moment the boys meet, we like them. Pellet is intelligent and nice, being one of the only boys at school to not reject Alfredo simply because he’s new. Alfredo, on the other hand, seems rougher around the edges. He is caught smoking on his first day of school, and he seems fascinated with tattoos. The way the boys appear at opposite ends of the personality spectrum plays an important role in the end of the film.

The most emotional scenes come near the movie’s conclusion, in which Pellet is on the run from his abusive father. He runs out of his house after an especially severe beating by his dad, and thinks only to go to Alfredo. Alfredo’s parents are more than willing to care for him, but a lawyer friend advises them that keeping him overnight without his parents’ knowledge could result in a kidnapping charge. When Pellet hears that they are returning him to his house, he fears for his life and takes off into the streets. Alfredo’s family and Pellet’s father ride around looking for him, and the silent tension that builds in the car between the enraged family and the ashamed father is stunning. At the end, Alfredo’s father has to choose between keeping his promise to Pellet to protect him, and the risk of arrest via kidnapping charges.

The DVD contains a “making of” featurette, a preview of next month’s Film Movement release, and an excellent Sundance-winning short film, More. Film Movement could not have chosen a better movie to introduce the cinematic benefits of being a club member.
For more info visit www.filmmovement.com.

Shawn Wines can be reached at shawnwines@aol.com.