REVIEW: Stylishly Shot ‘Las Niñas Bien’ Follows a Rich Woman’s Fall From Grace After Mexico’s 1982 Debt Crisis

'Las niñas bien' courtesy of TIFF

The Latin American financial crisis of the early 1980s had devastating effects on the region — growing unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor sparked an increase in crime and domestic terrorism that would permanently change the social makeup of countries like Mexico. Director Alejandra Márquez Abella’s sophomore feature, Las niñas bien (The Good Girls) captures this alarming point in history from the perspective of a socialite’s fall from grace in Mexico City, 1982.

It’s not a particularly illuminating perspective from which to understand the situation, and even though a strain of satire runs through the film, it maintains a narrow “rich people problems” dramatization that will turn off some viewers expecting more from the sorts of movies we get in 2019. Nevertheless, Márquez Abella proves a thoughtful and measured filmmaker, filling her beautifully shot melodrama with subtle, but effective characterizations. With the help of cinematographer Dariela Ludlow, Abela crafts a velvet-cushioned world of spa appointments, champagne-colored automobiles, and leisure gossip at the sports club, a dim bourgeois reality like the Chanel sunglasses through which these fragile women see the world.

A terrifically arrogant Ilse Salas plays Sofía, mother of three, and wife of Flavio Medina’s sleazeball in a nice suit, Fernando, a businessman soon to be on the brink of ruin. From the fabulously sophisticated high-point of Sofía’s birthday party, which the film opens with, Márquez Abella builds up to the eventual dispossession that will befall Sofía’s family by peppering dysfunction throughout her routine, like a machine falling slowly into disrepair. Water shortages plague her wealthy neighborhood of Polanco, forcing her to bathe using pool water. Neighbors are packing their homes and going on long vacations. Shopping sprees are funded with bad checks, and Sofía breaks out in rashes. Of course her luxury skin care routine has come to a grinding halt, but these unseemly marks are above all a physical manifestation of her bottled-up refusal to admit that her life is headed for a radical change.

While the European-looking, bird-thin Sofía is on the decline, Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan), a curvy, broad-faced beauty with long, tight curls and decidedly Mexican features, is on the rise after her marriage to a successful banker. The girls at the club, Sofía included, mock Ana Paula’s tacky clothes and colored contact lenses behind her back, but as the budding socialite becomes increasingly a part of their elite circle, Sofía ultimately finds herself desperate to be in the younger woman’s good graces.

Márquez Abella uses music sparingly, opting instead for long bouts of silence to highlight Sofía’s inner tension, and perhaps too, to make a point about the emptiness of the luxurious things and spaces she holds so dear. While no character is particularly likable (aside from maybe, Ana Paula, who is refreshingly rough around the edges), Sofía is, if not portrayed sympathetically, at least understood. Having lived her life for so long in this golden bubble, her priorities are superficial and maladjusted, determined by nothing more than the cheap gossip and silly codes of a roundtable of women who look and dress exactly like her. Ludlow captures this dizzying, repetitive insularity by having the camera run circles around the brunch-time flock of women, as indistinguishable from one another as the movie’s opening shot of Sofía, standing still in front of an impressive dressing room mirror with multiple panels, yielding several angles of the same reflection.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by popular Mexican novelist Guadalupe Loaeza, Márquez Abella’s rendition of Las niñas bien is a confident piece of filmmaking, aided by wonderfully imperious performances, elegantly melodramatic in restrained silence, and therefore all the more nutty when appearances start to breakdown. There’s not much new being said with this story, but the skillful execution from those above and below the line is sufficient, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Las niñas bien screened at the Hola Mexico Film Festival.