Cuba’s “special period” was a trying time for its citizens. As food and supplies ran scarce after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island’s people starved and made do with extreme shortages on everyday items. The traumatizing stories that rose out of that era are still whispered about today. Conditions deteriorated to the point where even many die-hard defenders of the government eyed an escape. Some men left their families, others led theirs into a desperate crossing on makeshift rafts to the United States or neighboring islands in the Caribbean.

It was in these bleak times that director Armando Capó grew up in Gibara, Cuba, a rural part of the island that’s a world away from bustling Havana. It’s a place where roads weren’t always paved, transportation was mostly on foot or bike with the occasional horse-driven carriage speeding by and everybody knew each other. But like the rest of the island, things changed in the early ’90s. Blackouts were frequent, food was less so. In his feature debut Agosto, Capó along with co-writer Abel Arcos Soto revisit these lean weeks of summer vacation when a young boy’s life was about to change forever.

Loosely based on the director’s experiences, the film’s main character, Carlos (Damián González Guerrero), says good-bye to his classmates at the end of their time in secondary school (middle school). He and his two friends, Elena (Glenda Delgado Dominguez) and Mandy (Alejandro Guerrero Machado), get up to the usual adolescent hijinks of being where they’re not supposed to, looking at what they’re not supposed to and shirking off responsibilities whenever they can. One day, they notice strangers living among some seaside ruins on the outskirts of town. The strangers claim they’re biologists, but none of the teens really think of them much. Later, Carlos discovers that these outsiders were a pair of many trying to make the perilous journey north. Members of his family and neighbors will attempt to do the same not long after.

Courtesy of TIFF

At home, Carlos may get on his parents’ nerves, but he carefully attends to his beloved grandmother. He checks in on her during every blackout, feeds her when it’s time for dinner and endures some of her bawdier stories of when she used to date men before meeting his grandfather. Unfortunately, she’s slipping away, much like his childhood and the Cuba he once knew. As summer comes to an end, the guilt of staying becomes too big a burden and the offer to leave the only home he’s known before becomes a siren song for him to follow towards the movie’s sobering conclusion.

Agosto is rooted in the tradition of Italian neo-realism. There’s a documentary-like quality in the film’s slow, observational point-of-view. Although the acting from the professional and non-professional cast may feel a little stilted at times, it’s never too distracting. For many kids Carlos’ age, being awkward is just a natural state of being. In addition to the grand disruption in these children’s lives, they’re just starting to figure out their crushes, sexual urges and what makes them competitive or jealous. Capó weaves the personal and political tensions naturally through the eyes of his protagonist. While he’s busy trying to figure out how to tell Elena he’s interested in her, he’s also watching his mother sell off the family’s clothes and furniture to make ends meet. Even though history will capture the large picture of our time in a certain place, we may always remember the personal details of those moments on our own.

There’s not much of a message or takeaway to be gleaned from Agosto, only a sense of one man’s memory of hearing both the Cuban and U.S. propaganda duel over the radio waves, to notice your parents are scared of what may happen and the helpless uncertainty of whether to leave home or wait things out. It’s a memory that is, unfortunately, coming back as fears of another starvation-inducing recession may strike in the wake of Venezuela’s hardships and the U.S.’ retreat from normalizing relations. And while the movie may serve as a dark reminder of this not-so-distant past, it’s also a testament to the idea that life does not stop because of politics. That there can still be schoolyard crushes, moms who worry about their kids and people who are just trying to survive whatever sliver of the economy may be handed to us.

Agosto screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.