Universally, the mere sighting of a shark fin near a shore immediately signals a menacing presence. Instinctive fright would make most swim away in panic – a reaction for which Spielberg’s 1970s blockbuster Jaws is partly to blame. Unlike the growling of dogs that loudly announces the animals’ discomfort and propensity for aggression, the marine creatures roam the water silently with only their appendage as warning sign. They’re all bite and no bark.

The same can be said about Rosina (Romina Bentancur), the 14-year-old protagonist in writer-director Lucía Garibaldi’s debut Los tiburones (The Sharks). In a sundrenched Uruguayan beach town that moves at a glacial pace, Rosina blends into the foliage without much to say or do. Nearly unemotional, Bentancur’s portrayal makes sure Rosina’s intentions evade us. A blank face and restrained gestures give almost nothing away, except the certainty that she’s deep in thought and plotting her next move.

First impressions matter, and the one we get of her comes as she runs into the ocean fearing retribution for hurting her sister’s eye – an incident she claims was accidental. Before diving in, however, Rosina is faced with a lonely predator’s fin. Soon, the community rallies together via WhatsApp though they remain suspicious of her purported sighting.

Soaked in a doubled bath of muted danger, from Rosina’s demeanor and the possibility of a shark infestation (a nightmare for a place profiting from tourism), Garibaldi’s movie meanders into insignificant moments that illustrate the protagonist’s little interest for her family’s financial woes or the townspeople’s plight to deter chaos. Access to running water is also a widespread local issue. One so pronounced that if we could smell what we are watching, the screen would reek of a musky scent with notes of sweat and salt.

All that is secondary for Rosina though, who is absorbed in her newly discovered attraction for one of her father’s employees, Joselo (Federico Morosini). Older than her and much less engrossed in a potential relationship, the clumsy gardener awakens previously foreign desires in Rosina. When he fails to engage with her blossoming sexuality and rejects her advances, she winds up confused and vexed. But like the bodies of the hypothetical sharks in question, her disappointment boils under the surface.

Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

There are no outbursts or descriptive dialogue suggesting she is plotting. Everything Rosina does is unspoken, which translated into cinema that’s not traditionally riveting but works as a cerebral dilemma. Furthermore, The Sharks’ pleasant cinematography works in concert with the film’s deceivingly inconsequential situations. Its neatly framed shots permeate with natural light and project harmlessness, setting the stage for vengeance in broad daylight.

In order to connect Rosina’s insular world to external preoccupations, Garibaldi intersperses blurry TV clips including news stories on animal rights, singing competitions, and even a report from a correspondent stating the coast is free of the large fish. It’s from these programs that she draws inspiration to justify her deeds. At some point her actions indicate her motivation might be an environmental crusade. Is her goal to save the sharks or use them to do her bidding?

Extremely subdued on all fronts, Garibaldi’s The Sharks subverts the exuberance associated with coming-of-age storylines. Bentancur’s stern looks are not filled with buoyancy but rather characterized by hostility – towards what or whom we can’t always be sure. In fact, the first-time actress’s internalized rendition is so fittingly impenetrable, reading between her very few lines is the viewer’s only chance at decoding Rosina. And that’s the filmmaker’s most apparent accomplishment as a director.

Yet, the character does undergo a substantial evolution, even if she’ll never tell. As opposed to how we first encountered her, in the end she walks away from the beach satisfied. Make of that what you will.

The Sharks premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award.

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