Following the aftermath of the brutal Pinochet regime, 90’s Chile existed as a country in flux attempting to discover a new identity in its newfound freedom. It’s during this adjustment period that the subdued Chilean drama Too Late to Die Young follows three young individuals, Sofia (Demian Hernández), Lucas (Antar Machado) and Clara (Magdalena Tótoro). The film follows their attempts to find themselves while living in a small commune placed in self-enforced isolation by their parents to escape the dangers of urbanization.
Dominga Sotomayor’s third feature film is a romantic exploration of the nostalgia and naivety of youth as well as the often invasive behavior of our immediate communities. Sotomayor’s film is unambitious in the narrative sense, choosing to emphasize small interactions and human experiences over the traditional narrative structure. The film’s intimate stories are told primarily through Hernández’s frustrated 16-year-old Sofia who commits small rebellious acts to taste some of the outside world that she so craves.
Reminiscent of last year’s Roma, Too Late to Die Young feels vaguely personal as though telling the tale of a past life lived. Unsurprisingly, this is due to Sotomayor herself spending her young life in a similar community. While overshadowed by Roma during last years award season, Sotomayor’s film and the former both share significant similarities. Namely, a New Years bush fire sequence.
Said New Years party is just one of many symbols of growth, change, and rebirth strewn throughout the film. The following horrific bush fire is also a reminder that while the commune may try to escape the dangers of urbanization, the hazards of nature are not far behind.
Incidents littered throughout the film, such as the death of a horse and break-in reveal the rising threat of the outside world, yet the village’s teens remain oblivious. They live surrounded by adults who drink wine and smoke pot, staying complacent, and living in the current moment with little consideration for the future. The prospect of freedom has relaxed them so intensely that even the dilemma of setting up a power supply is met with little earnest.
Compared to the relentless artistic appeal of Roma, Too Late to Die Young feels smaller and more intimate in scale. The entirety of the film takes place in a small commune by the Alps, primarily based on Sotomayor’s home commune of Peñalolén that still exists today. Sotomayor herself would have been a child at the time of the film’s setting, placing her closer to Clara’s young age (roughly ten) than Sofia’s. However, exploration of suffocation and new experiences are more apt for teen protagonists than tweens, making the age up more than appropriate.
In these children’s world, threats like the break-in face equal if not smaller attention than moments of passing sensory beauty. Kisses and cigarettes are more prominent in their lives than the dangers surrounding them. Too Late to Die Young’s cinematic prowess and lethargic rhythm lend to the film feeling simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Hypnotic countryside visuals and delicate washes of natural light allow the film and commune to feel like a daydream, leaving the adult characters decision to leave urban sprawls behind them more than understandable.
Although the parents revel in the countryside’s beauty and their post-Pinochet freedom, it leaves many of their offspring stifled. Sofia’s suffocation and desire to see the wider world lead her to chase reckless experiences such as smoking and losing her virginity to a hunky outsider named Ignacio (Matías Hernández) despite apparent interest from her friend and fellow commune dweller Lucas.
While in other films, this would result in a dramatic love triangle, here it amounts to nothing more than yet another narrative thread in these young characters lives with no significant consequences. Instead of being the primary narrative focus, it is merely one aspect of each characters life. The entire film has no real storyline in the traditional sense; instead, it is a culmination of various narrative threads similar to life itself. There seems to be no real aim with this film; instead, it is a culmination of moments and feelings.
At times Too Late to Die Young’s lack of direction can feel vaguely frustrating, like trying to grasp at something not entirely there. It almost feels apt to label it a nostalgic art piece rather than a drama. The films vaguely political backdrop does not turn the film into a statement piece but instead allows Sotomayor to explore the nostalgia of her life through a new lens.
Any attempts to watch Too Late to Die Young as a narrative drama will prove largely fruitless, as it’s actual merits lie in its artistic vision and infectiously calming atmosphere. Sotomayor’s piece may be lacking in the narrative sense, but is a triumph in visual storytelling.