Director: Mikel Rueda
Though heavily informed by contemporary issues of immigration and prejudice, Mikel Rueda’s bittersweet coming-of-age drama Hidden Away succeeds first and foremost as a tender tribute to the sometimes tumultuous bonds of youth – romantic and otherwise. A work brimming with mesmeric mood, Rueda draws conflict from a range of social and legal complications that both impede and embolden the intimate connections of his characters, displaying an astute awareness of the often touchingly indirect ways in which hesitant male teens communicate and express affection. Shot with a dreamy blue-green palette that enriches the realist drama with compassionate psychological weight, the film creates a profoundly layered, quietly absorbing reality for these young men that seems to expand well beyond the periphery of the frame or the focus of the narrative.
The focus in question is the cautiously progressing relationship between teenagers Ibra (Adil Koukouh) and Rafa (Germán Alcarazu). Ibra is an undocumented immigrant from Morocco whose deportation remains a looming threat throughout his day-to-day life. Rafa is a Spanish boy who rolls with a group of rambunctious adolescents who show open hostility towards the local Arab community, and don’t seem especially tolerant of same-sex relations either.
By taking the time to flesh out these and other external sources of tension, Rueda inspires a poignant understanding of what the relationship between Ibra and Rafa means to each party and what each stands to lose. At the same time, these side-plots are often characterised by loose ends, unresolved conflicts and unspoken thoughts, positioning the central semi-romance as one part of a larger, messy reality and creating a potent sense of mystery and textual richness that a more linear, neater telling of this story couldn’t match.
Similarly, Hidden Away finds much of its psychological clout by tapping into a very adolescent form of uncertainty. An early highlight sees Rafa cautiously, wordlessly following Ibra onto the roof of an empty building. It’s a spellbinding sequence charged by the beguiling awkwardness of two sexually awakening teens unsure of how to act on these new and half-formed feelings. By contrast, the film later encounters one of its weaker spots in a sequence that shows their friendship settling into a more comfortable groove; the bowling alley montage (set to a slightly too upbeat pop song) feels relatively bland due to a lack of this same intriguing indecision and indirectness.
Still, even the film’s less absorbing segments maintain a level of charm and personality thanks to the endearing chemistry of its characters, bolstered by an excellent cast. Despite the film’s appropriately mysterious title, the emotions of these characters often aren’t so much ‘hidden away’ as they are distorted but obliquely communicated. Though the oppressive mob mentality of Rafa’s circle of friends and the challenging circumstance’s of Ibra’s life make it hard for them to openly follow through on their feelings for each other, their affection is implicit in every act of kindness, every warmly irreverent joke at the other’s expense and every moment of just being there.
In the youth-based reality of Rueda’s immersive and perceptive work, simply hanging out, smoking or playing video games with a friend can provide precious momentary relief from the demands of life. And while there’s certainly regret to be found in the inability of these young men to move beyond such platonic companionship, these fleeting displays of camaraderie carry enough palliative intimacy in themselves to be thankful that they ever happened.
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