by Joshua Ray on Nov 14, 2019

Throughout the 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Over the past few years, a brighter spotlight has been shone on “reparative” therapy for queer people – conditioning processes typically implemented by religious groups in order to set them “straight”. It’s a trend that has helped to illuminate this insidiously dangerous practice. An increasing number of states have banned gay conversion therapy, citing the detrimental effects on the mental health of the patients. As a result, public discourse has been focused on the true illness at the heart of the matter: that of the individuals who would perpetrate such traumatic actions on their fellow human beings.

Filmmakers Joel Edgerton and Desiree Akhavan both brought teen conversion camp stories to the big screen last year with Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, respectively. Said failms are easily dismissible, albeit with some small charms in the margins: the former a would-be prestige picture featuring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Southern Baptist Bible-thumping parents to queer teen Lucas Hedges; the latter a scrappy indie with Chloë Grace Moretz as the eponymous lead and Sasha Lane as a “cabin mate” and potential love interest.

As artistic and cultural objects, those two films tremble at the feet of Jayro Bustamante’s Temblores. They contain a shoehorned uplift of self-discovery as if to balance the dire circumstances, all for the sake of palatability. Here, the concern is for verisimilitude to the mental and physical torture of the person targeted for conversion. Even though Boy and Cameron come from artists with varied backgrounds and aesthetic modes, they’re nevertheless polished efforts, containing a neat sheen present even when the films are at their most heart-wrenching. Temblores is polished, too, but with elegiac purpose: Its gloriously wrought surface is born from its protagonist’s struggle to negotiate his faith, adherence to gender norms, and his unfulfilled personal identity.

Bustamante drops viewers in medias res into Pablo’s (Juan Pablo Olyslager) coming-out. He’s the most enviable and well-known member of his upper-crust Guatemala City family, a handsome family man who is well-liked by his church congregation and successful in his business ventures. News of his identity trickles out slowly even as the family searches for answers as to how Pablo could become such an “aberration.” Their feverish tailspin is instigated by Pablo’s declaration to his wife, Isa (Diane Bathen), that he’s leaving her for a man. The family reacts to the confession with varying degrees of awfulness, from vague wishes of his death at the worst, to complete silence representing the most tolerant.

Thankfully – and rightfully – these are none of the stock villains that are so common to the coming-out film. Temblores takes great strides to track just how this oppressive culture births static thinking that ripples out into undocumented but well-abided-by policy in denigrating the “other.” On the other hand, the “good guys” don’t get off so easy. Pablo’s effervescent and flaky party-animal boyfriend, Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadúa), all but unloads him off into a ramshackle apartment with a revolving door for his like-minded friends. In the few moments where they are together, he plays the part of a supportive and philosophical rock. It’s not until Pablo’s coming-out forces him out of his job, into a custody battle, and back into the grasp of the church that Francisco understands the severity of his situation.

Francisco attempts to reconcile the situation by approaching Pablo’s mother and the family’s maid in order to impart understanding - an effort that proves futile. Pablo has already entered a conversion therapy led by his evangelical church’s female pastor (a stoic yet frightening Sabrina De La Hoz). Bustamante spares no brutal detail regarding this process of sexual and spiritual reconditioning, and his denouement is a final devastating gut-punch in the story of Pablo’s “healing.” However, he’s also too smart a filmmaker to check-out in such a nihilistic fashion, offering a final exchange of looks that acts as a confrontation of truth and a plea for self-actualization. Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post couldn’t muster the courage for this exacting authenticity, whereas Temblores has it in spades.

Temblores screens Thursday, Nov. 14 at 4:30 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 16 at 6:00 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.