Leo (Martín Rodríguez) is a 20-something Uruguayan student, living in a small rented room. In this tiny space he is free to be himself. The problem is that Leo isn’t sure of who he is, yet. We learn that he’s been working on his thesis, but hasn’t been able to commit to a subject; therefore, he has turned himself into an eternal college student. He has a girlfriend (Carolina Alarcón) but he can’t commit to her either; their relationship has turned into endless failed attempts at having sex and going out with their friends. When his girlfriend gives him a dog for his birthday, she does so expecting that he will finally grow attached to another living being.
Frustrated with their relationship, Leo’s girlfriend dumps him and suggests that he seek psychological help. The reluctant Leo starts going to therapy, but finds himself hiding stuff from his therapist (the delightful Arturo Goetz) as well. During the first few scenes, the film tries to trick us into thinking that Leo is just going through a regular existential crisis, a bout of depression perhaps, only then to reveal that the young man is struggling with his sexuality. Leo, for all he knows, might be gay.
He spends hours in his room chatting with strangers, asking them what they’re looking for (perhaps they have answers for his own dilemma), at first the film keeps the gender of the chatters a secret, then as he starts meeting them we see they were men. The shy Leo, who goes by the name Nico online, waits for them at a bus stop and rejects or accepts them according to hunches. One of these random encounters leads him to meet Seba (Gerardo Begérez), to whom he is instantly attracted. They seem to hit it off, even if Leo doesn’t think of himself as gay, but soon he finds himself in the same spot as before: he might not want to be with Seba, either.
The film then introduces another character: Caro (Cecilia Cósero), Leo’s elementary school sweetheart who runs into him by accident. He tries to befriend her and finds a very damaged woman harboring a dark secret. This story would’ve made a wonderful movie on its own, but juxtaposed with Leo’s situation, it makes for a beautiful counterpoint. Leo begins to find his life might have a purpose, just as Caro has all but lost hers.
Even if the story has been told endless times before, Leo’s Room does a superb job of not judging its main character. Leo could’ve been portrayed as a selfish bastard, playing with people’s hearts for fun. Instead, the film portrays him affectionately, as a young man who is lost. It has to be said that for a movie that deals with homosexuality, this one feels refreshing because it doesn’t make Leo’s sexual orientation the center of all his tragedies. While most movies with gay themes have the coming out process as the most significant, this one wonders if it’s really that important, compared to what’s next. Leo’s therapist gives him a friendly smile after he confesses he likes a man, and asks him “So what?”
It’s this sincerity that makes Leo’s Room such a delightful surprise. The events might seem familiar, but debut director Enrique Buchichio approaches them as if they were being shown for the very first time. He turns Leo into a wondrous creature who can’t help but feel curious even if the discoveries ahead are absolutely frightening. Considering that this is his first feature film, Buchichio shows a mastery of the form that’s usually reserved to real experts. For example, he creates a symbolic womb in Leo’s room, where the young man crawls up in order to avert danger. Even if there’s nothing “special” to the room, we understand why Leo loves it so much, why it’s become his sanctuary.
Some of the most moving scenes in the movie are set inside the room. During a particularly poignant moment, we see Leo enter the room and the entire place is filled with loud noise. Leo closes his door and it’s back to silence. This isn’t done in an obvious way, but it’s this masterful use of sound editing for example, that makes the film so rich in meaning.
Of course the film isn’t always perfect, Buchichio sometimes succumbs to cliché, like a montage where we see all the characters in pain, set to a song that says “I don’t know what to do / To get in touch with you”. The resources might’ve been cheesy, but Buchichio’s intention of showing us how impenetrable people are, reminds us that in the end we all are living in our own world.
Extras: The Global Film Initiative’s major purpose is to show films that we otherwise might never get to see. Therefore this release, as others in the series, is pretty much barebones. Included are a trailer for the company (which does tingle world cinema lovers) and a computer-only viewing guide, in which the film’s director helps point out the major themes in his film. It would’ve been great to have interviews with the young actors or maybe have a more profound making-of account, however the disc gets the job done, with a decent transfer of a movie that otherwise might have been limited to festival showings.