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'Burma' Proves to Be a SXSW Surprise

Carlos Puga's first feature-length film since The S1gnificance of Se7eventeen is a thoughtful family drama that invites contemplation and deserves praise for its excellent ensemble cast.


Director: Carlos Puga
Cast: Christopher Abbott, Gaby Hoffmann, Christopher McCann, Dan Bittner, Emily Fleischer, Jacinta Puga, Matt McCarthy, Kelly Aucoin

Before we go any further, I have to confess something: Burma wasn't on my original SXSW to-do list. It wasn't even on the second revision of the list. Nothing about it jumped out at me. In fact, the only reason I went to see Burma at all was because I badly needed dinner and it was being shown at the Alamo, which just happens to offer full, in-your-seat food service. Seeing Burma was really just an accident.

And what a happy accident it was. Carlos Puga's film is an emotionally heady family drama that takes on how we related to each other, and how sometimes we are least able to see clearly those who are closest to us. The film starts with a fairly basic premise: Dr. Lynn (Christopher McCann) returns to tell his adult children something nine years after abandoning them along with his dying wife. The range of emotions felt by siblings Christian (Christopher Abbott), Susan (Gaby Hoffman) and Win (Dan Bittner) seems a bit stereotypical at first. Okay, it's a family drama with all the attendant sibling issues. However, as Burma progresses, so much more comes to the surface.

Over the course of the movie, we watch the distanced family attempting to knit themselves back together. Susan detests her father, Win is naively optimistic, and Christian is torn emotionally and suffering from a serious addiction that keeps him from negotiating his own feelings effectively. The resulting portrayal of the relationship between the three siblings is one of the very best parts about Burma. Young Jacinta Puga also puts in an impressive performance as Charlie, Susan's daughter. Charlie is an otherwise normal girl who inexplicably shows up without key articles of clothing at the worst possible times for her mother, whose compassion (and patience) is obviously frayed.

A budding relationship between Charlie and Dr. Lynn adds depth to a film that would otherwise be only an exploration of issues between a parent and his children. By adding a third generation to the mix, Puga has effectively painted a portrait of how the proverbial sins of the father are more often buried in silence than dragged out and displayed. Charlie doesn't know that Dr. Lynn is her grandfather, because she believes that her grandfather is dead. Because she is perhaps the only character in the film who is able to see him clearly, she has great affection for him.

Puga's narrative is artful without forcing our sympathies or presenting us with over-developed theses, as family dramas are so want to do. Instead, we are invited to follow the fault lines of the characters' emotions so that we can see the same story from different perspectives without any fancy camera tricks or flashback scenes. I'm not going to tell you what Dr. Lynn has come back to tell his family because it would just be an unnecessary spoiler and there's no reason to do that to such a lovely film. While Burma is sparse, it is also powerful. I've never been so happy about a decision made out of hunger.

Burma won Special Jury Recognition for an Ensemble Cast at the SXSW 2013 Film Festival Jury & Special Awards.

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