By Francesco Cerniglia
Directed by Ives Rosenfeld
Thessaloniki International Film Festival review
Minimalist and powerful in equal parts, Aspirantes (Hopefuls) is one of those character studies that leaves you wanting for more but is more impactful especially because of its succinct and compartmentalised storytelling. Once again, Brazil proves to be fertile territory for emerging voices and filmmaker Ives Rosenfeld has most definitely crafted a mature and compelling feature debut on both a thematic and a stylistic level.
The title itself encapsulates what the film is all about and defines the essence of youth, resonating even stronger for a country like Brazil with its troubled socio-economic reality. Rosenfeld shows the attributes of an auteur-in-the-making, delivering this raw coming of age drama about a young boy from a small town on the coast of Rio de Janeiro who plays football for an amateur team, dreaming about making the leap to the big leagues.
Junior (Ariclenes Barroso), our protagonist, may be no older than 18 years (there’s no mention or hints at the character’s age) but his humble origins have already put him to the test as he endures living with his alcoholic uncle and works night shifts unloading goods, while his girlfriend Karine (Julia Bernat) is pregnant. No spoilers here though as this detail is revealed early in the film and it’s something already in progress rather than a discovery that affects the plot.
What the unwanted pregnancy has affected is Junior’s life and the Cinéma Vérité mood and style of the piece remind us with every shot that this is real life we’re witnessing rather than a watered down version of reality. The film is at the core an exploration of Junior’s feelings as he navigates the uncharted waters of growing up whilst already carrying some rather heavy baggage to deal with. As he starts off seemingly in control and emotionally balanced to face his daily hardships, things get heavier to bear. When his childhood friend Bento (Sérgio Malheiros) is signed to play with a professional team, Junior grows jealous not just of Bento’s lucky strike but of the fact that his friend is even able to follow through with the opportunity, being free of other binding ties.
There isn’t much else to the plot of Aspirantes as the film focuses on Junior’s internal struggle to figure out who he is and how to overcome his obstacles that are mostly related to issues of self-pride. When Bento makes himself available to help Junior with anything, the boy keeps repeating that he doesn’t need any help to the point of getting irritated, and when jealousy and frustration affect his performance on the pitch, compromising his own chances of getting scouted, it becomes evident how Junior needs to reassess his psycho-emotional state.
Ariclenes Barroso does an outstanding job at portraying this introverted teenager in a compelling and authentic fashion. Junior doesn’t speak much but his actions and body language speak volumes about his inner state in a way dialogue most likely wouldn’t be able to. Rosenfeld aids the performance of this talented young actor with an appropriate use of his camera to emphasize Junior’s stubborn tendency to isolate himself. The filmmaker shoots the football sequences keeping the camera close and tight on Junior, underlining his inability to rely on the help of others. It is a rather affecting choice since basically we don’t see what the other players are doing most of the times but only Junior’s reactions to what’s going on during the match. When the boy frustratingly practices on his own instead, trying to score long distance goals, the frame is wide enclosing half of the pitch and the goal he’s shooting at but the stark contrast of his loneliness on the field is equally powerful at conveying Junior’s status quo.
Whilst telling this coming of age story, the promising Brazilian writer/director discards any Hollywood tropes, including those of tailor-made Sundance bait. He zeroes in on a specific moment in this boy’s life that is not dictated by typical contexts like high school or college but rather a psycho-emotional stage on the cusp of adulthood. On paper Junior already deals with the responsibilities of a grown up yet he has a lot of maturing to do inside. Rosenfeld with his camera and Barroso with his performance succeed at convincingly placing us within the intricacies of Junior’s heart and mind. If you’re looking for deep, introspective filmmaking, Aspirantes is not to be missed.
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