Film Review: Las niñas bien (The Good Girls) (Spanish, 2018)
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Writer & Director Alejandra Márquez Abella skewers the Mexican high society against the backdrop of '82 financial crisis.
In the '80's Mexico suffered one of its worst recessions. The drop in oil prices led to a domino effect and Mexico found itself forced to devalue peso against the US dollar. This increased the dollar debt burden resulting in an almost total loss of cash reserves. Soon, other Latin American countries were affected and this period is often referred to as "the lost decade".
The central character of Las niñas bien Sofia (the haunting Ilse Salas) lives in an almost hermetically sealed world where the country's economy is the last thing on her mind. Her biggest worry is how she will top her birthday celebrations next year. Her days go by in a daze of club visits, shopping and gossiping with her equally privileged friends. The first few scenes chart the luxury and the resulting indolence that these characters indulge in.
But from the very beginning, even as she lists the main attraction of her birthday party in a voice-over, she hardly expresses any joy. There is a sense of loss in Ilse Salas' performance, as if she is subconsciously aware that this is a house of cards and all it will take is a breath for it to fall apart. Her character, Sofia has been made aware of the presence of a "black moth" in the house by a help. He tells her that it brings bad luck.
That Sofia believes him and is in fact even scared of it tells us that there is an innocence running beneath her cold, haughty and mocking persona.
This, I feel, is extremely important to the film as it is the only subtle hint that, despite its title, Las niñas bien is not satirizing the whole gender. It suggests that this desire to be 'better' than the others has been foisted on them by the largely male dominated society. As if they have been appointed to spend the money their husbands earn as showily as possible. Mannequins to display their husband's success.
There is a simultaneous search and recognition in Salas' eyes that creates an empathy for her character that is, usually, beyond this genre.
This is a much needed correction in this genre that includes films like American Beauty, where a woman's attempt to match the color of her gardening gloves with the shears is seen with contempt but a man taking up drugs is seen as emancipation.
Abella films her subjects firmly in center most of the times.
At times, this technique makes the characters boxed and overwhelmed by the surroundings.
For instance, the following shot makes Sofia smaller than all of the material things around her:
As the country's financial meltdown intensifies, so does the family's.
Sofia's husband Fernando (Flavio Medina) is equally enraged and lost when his Uncle pulls out of the business, following the example of the US investors who sense trouble. He starts staying at home and even the servants become defiant when they stop getting paid. Money, is the only oil that runs this machinery.
But credit cards being declined or banks trying to forfeit her car are not the only problems that Sofia is now facing.
The object of the group of women's derision is the nouveau-riche Ana Paula (Paulina Gatan). She "wants to join the club". This is the club where the "good girls" meet (though the allusion could be of the class too).
As the other "girls" fight to maintain their dignity, Paula gradually becomes the reigning queen. Her husband is in government and right now the cards are in his hands.
Sofia manages to find some redemption for her treatment of Paula when she is forced to visit Paula's birthday party.
All satire masks outrage. There is something Buneulian about the world here. But Abella's approach is tempered by empathy. Her viewpoint is largely more observational than judgemental and she does not punish her characters like Bunuel did.
Or at least until the ending where Sofia almost literally becomes what others thought of her as: "a bitch".
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