You all know how much I like movie lists. One title that I’d seen mentioned over and over is We Are What We Are. I found it on Netflix and tried to sit through it—twice—but the boredom damn near killed me. Then I discovered that the 2013 film is an American remake of the Mexican film, Somos Lo Que Hay. So I watched that one. And, wow, is it ever good!
The American movie is a moody, plodding drama, over-burdened with atmosphere. But within the first twelve minutes of the original, we have a shambling, zombie-like man sputtering and collapsing dead to the floor. A rivalry between brothers quickly follows, with the setup that this family we’ll be watching has the financial screws turned to them. A violent outburst of one brother is echoed minutes later by their mother’s sorrow-fueled rage after learning of her husband’s death. Within twenty minutes, we see that each member of this family is an outcast within the unit, even as the family itself is despised out in public. In fact, it’s this delicate balance of the family’s love and contempt for each other that propels the film.
Somos Lo Que Hay succeeds on so many levels: family drama, psychological thriller, coming-of-age journey. Topics as far-ranging as incest, cannibalism, and hiding one’s homosexuality play off each other in this tense, well-directed film. And the actors all give outstanding performances. Carmen Beato excels as the mother who uses anger to mask her sadness and confusion. Francisco Barreiro plays older brother Alfredo—the sensitive one with a secret who must fulfill the role of patriarch. The terrific Alan Chávez is Julián—the hotheaded brother. And Paulina Gaitán commands a powerful yet subtle portrayal as sister Sabina, who pulls everyone’s strings, secretly guiding the family forward. She’s the brains of the operation, though no one sees it, forced to stay behind the scenes because she’s a girl. Instead of resenting this, Sabina revels in her manipulation.
There’s a bit of a subplot with the apathetic police officers hoping for their own payday. I thought these scenes detracted from the movie’s overall forward progress, but in my research for this blog, I discovered that Alan Chávez was himself killed by police only months after filming wrapped. The terrible news adds a poignant parallel to how all these elements tie together. And lends a sad eloquence to his portrayal of a lost and angry young man, evidently very much like his own tragic life.
Each member of this family will do whatever it takes to survive. But none can do so alone. Every one of them has a fatal flaw that will not allow them to lead. Because they don’t understand the concept of cooperation, they are doomed to self-destruct. Watching them spin out of control is both the fun and tragedy of this film. Brilliant from start to finish, this is one of those rare movies that satisfies completely.