Staying in the self-proclaimed “Spring Water Capital of Uruguay” on a vacation where it will not stop raining is simply the cruelest irony, and this is the unfortunate fate of the family at the center of Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge’s miraculous feature film debut Tanta Agua (literally, So Much Water). Family Trips From Hell are a common recurrence in movies because they provide a succinct platform for placing characters in hijinks-laden situations provoking combustion, airing of grievances and lessons learned. There are not, however, lessons in Tanta Agua so much as cold hard truths illuminated with warmth and patience.
Alberto (Néstor Guzzini) picks up his two children Lucía (Malú Chouza) and Frederico (Joaquin Castiglioni) from his ex-wife’s and transports them through the omnipresent to drizzle to a holiday spot of modest bungalows outside the northern Uruguayan city of Salto. They can’t use the pool because of an electrical storm warning. They can’t watch TV because the cottage doesn’t have one. And despite only having one bedroom between them, it is not so much claustrophobia that sets in as boredom. Eventually Alberto capitulates and hooks up a television set. They watch it with as much interest as they watch the raindrops.
Scenes in the car are presented as individual shots rather than all-encompassing frames, subtly conveying a family apart, reinforced by their strained dialogue. Throughout Alberto steals glances of Lucía, gauging her interest in what he’s said or in what they are doing, quietly desperate to reach into his daughter’s world before he loses her.
Guzzini comes equipped with an everyday weariness, not worn out but getting tired. Chouza plays Lucía with a mouthful of braces, self-consciously checking them out in the mirror, as if their departure could magically cure all that ails her. Very much thoughtful and considerate, particularly in the way she patiently deals with her little brother, she is just departing adolescence for the brave new world of young adulthood. At that difficult age parents stop being cool, and Alberto simply existing is problem enough for Lucía.
Never is this more apparent than in the flirtation she has with a handsome boy, Santi (Pedro Duarte). As they make eyes, Alberto lumbers into the frame with Frederico, proudly bestowing his daughter a gift of her favorite jam. Maybe it is her favorite, but in that moment Chouza demonstrates how a father’s sweetest thought can suddenly and entirely without his knowledge transform into the worst idea in the world. Lucía’s new friend, Madelón (Sofia Azambuya), gushes about Alberto’s kindness and humor, but that is heartbreakingly lost on his own child, and that loss is her conscious choice.
Still, it is not all defeat for Alberto. At a shopping center, Lucía tries on sunglasses. When she finds a desirable pair, her father, in one deft motion, snaps off the price tag and pushes the glasses up onto his daughter’s head, as if she had been wearing them all along. As they go through the checkout aisle, father and daughter laugh. It is not a flaunting of petty crime as much as it them temporarily being pals again, sharing a secret, and Alberto having faith in Lucía that she still knows the right thing to do in spite of what they have just done.
The right thing, however, becomes a question mark when Tanta Agua’s third act takes a perhaps predictable tack. Smitten with Santi and thinking him to be smitten with her, they agree to meet at a dance club so long as Lucía brings along Madelón. She does. You can see it coming, Santi preferring Madelón, but then that’s the point, that Lucía can’t see what’s so obvious because teen love obfuscates obviousness. Consequently Lucía has too much to drink and gets sick and when she does she turns to her dad, the one person she swore she wouldn’t, and he naturalistically swoops in to her rescue.
It is that delicate moment when a dad realizes he can no longer shield the daughter from all outside forces and the daughter still yearns to believe the dad is her ultimate protector. She is suspended between what her life always has been and what it is about to become, and ultimately Tanta Agua marvelously re-emphasizes that this step forward is so much more terrifying than any hellish vacation.