Tribeca 2022 Review: A Pregnancy Gives Birth to Ideas of an Unexamined Life in Michelle Garza Cervera’s “Huesera”

If you didn’t know better, it would seem as if Valeria (Natalia Solian) is looking on longingly as she passes by a playground, seeing all the young children frolic in front of her in “Huesera.” But as Michelle Garza Cervera’s wicked thriller unfolds, you realize that jungle gym the kids are crawling all over that stands in front of the soon-to-be-mother starts to resemble a prison more than a wish realized, a brilliant optical illusion that Cervera and cinematographer Nur Rubio Sherwell use time and again as everything from the crib Valeria builds to the mobile that sits above it appears as a trap. However, it isn’t that Valeria is scared of becoming a mother – she nods politely when asked by a local shaman if she wants the child – but that it is the culmination of a life she didn’t necessarily ask for, giving a unique twist to a pregnancy potboiler on par with “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Grace” yet entirely its own thing.

It’s a sign of Cervera and Abia Castillo’s dark sense of humor that one doesn’t learn of Valeria’s discomfort with the whole situation until Mother’s Day, with she and her partner Raul (Alfonso Dosal) visiting her mother Maricarmen (Aida Lopez), who is thrilled with the news of becoming a grandmother. However, her sister Vero (Sonia Couoh) is considerably less impressed, recalling around the dinner table that one of the last times Valeria babysat, she dropped an infant down some stairs, leading to a persistent rumor the kid was a slow learner ever since. Children are a touchy subject generally in the house where Maricarmen openly mocks her sister Chabe as a childless spinster, but you begin to suspect that Valeria admires her more than her mother as bits of a punk past come to light and the two share an independent streak that Chabe has pursued at the cost of being mocked in a culture still rooted in traditional ideas of domesticity.

Valeria doesn’t protest when her doctor advises to put aside her carpentry practice – too many chemicals – while she’s pregnant, but it’s no coincidence that giving up the last part of her life that’s entirely hers has hallucinatory effects that no amount of lacquer ever could, imagining a neighbor climb off the ledge of their apartment building, though a call to Raul to come see what’s happening yields nothing. She seeks out comfort elsewhere, rekindling a relationship with Octavia, who knew her in the wilder days of their youth, and “Huesera” is shrewdly structured to show how every step Valeria takes towards her past is actually moving closer to the person she really is, entering into the slow-moving tragedy of life taking her in another direction.

On a technical level, Garza Cervera and crew’s consideration of space and time is dazzling, constantly using the room in both to make it feel as if Valeria has autonomy yet give just enough context at any given moment to show how limited her choices really have been. But none of it would work as well as it does without Solian, who has a wide-eyed curiosity as Valeria that can all but hide the dark, exhausted rings underneath, requiring few words for the deep discomfort she feels as she brings the baby to term or the sparks of excitement she has to suppress in front of others when the possibility of a detour starts to take root. Not only do you feel that electrical undercurrent from following Valeria, but when it’s a first feature from many involved, “Huesera” offers that same sensation of trembling in fear and anticipation when it may be chilling as a story but surely only the start for an extraordinary set of new voices.

“Huesera” will screen again at Tribeca on June 10th at 9:30 pm at the Village East Theater 4 and June 18th at 8:15 pm at the Tribeca Film Center.