Introducing his film Temblores (Tremors) at the Miami Film Festival, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante (Ixcanul) noted that its story may seem dated to an audience unfamiliar with queer issues in Guatemala. But, as he recently had to reaffirm, the kind of the gay conversion narrative he’s telling is taking place today. And, more troublingly, it’ll still be happening tomorrow. Awash in grimy grays that mirror the bleakness of its central story, Tremors opens with Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) arriving at his lavish home in Guatemala City. There, he’s confronted by his family. His shameful secret has been made public and siblings, parents, and wife alike all implore him to denounce the truth they fear will destroy their family. “What happened to you that made you this way?” he’s asked. As the world around him begins crumbling down, the ground literally starts to tremble. The earthquakes-as-metaphor for Pablo’s ailment is an all-too tidy narrative construction that nevertheless makes the film’s connection to Guatemala’s own environment clear as day.

Much like Bustamante’s earlier film, Ixcanul, Tremors focuses on a character shackled by outdated traditions. Pablo may belong to a wealthy family and have what seems like a perfect life (stable job, wife, two kids) but his inner desires pull him away from the quaint heterosexual life that’s been predetermined for him. Dropping us in the middle of this crisis (there’s no coming out scene, no build-up to the revelation that drives the story), we merely witness its fallout: Pablo is forced to move into a ramshackle apartment managed by his boyfriend Francisco (Mauricio Armas), which he hopes to make cozy for his kids to go visit. But when lawyers and a zealous church pastor’s wife (Sabrina De La Hoz) get involved, Pablo is forced to reassess whether he can afford to wreck his life to live his truth.

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival

The relentless dour tone of the film is counterbalanced by its gorgeous cinematography, which is aptly shaky and gritty. Equally arresting is the film’s art direction, which portrays world that looks trapped in the 1970s. Were it not for vaping and modern-day technology, its antique furniture and dated costuming might lead you to believe this was truly a period film. Moreover, Olyslager’s powerful performance as Pablo goes a long way to make this portrayal of a gay man grappling with his own homophobia (and losing the battle in the process) as captivating as it is.

His Pablo is a broken man whose hollowed eyes and empty expressions are as much a mask as he can muster to face his family, his kids, and even his boyfriend – who insists Pablo’s just making too big a deal out of the entire thing (they have each other, don’t they?). There are subtle hints of a thriving gay world in Guatemala City, but it’s clear Pablo’s own family and social standing prevent him from fully embracing an out gay lifestyle with pride. One wishes, though, that the central gay romance were more exciting, more passionate, more rewarding even. At times it’s hard to understand what it is that makes Pablo gravitate toward the devil-may-care Francisco.

US viewers may be tempted to make comparisons to recent films like The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased — two projects that dealt with gay conversion therapy in the United States — but the local specificity of Tremors makes them an unhelpful point of reference. Also, while those two 2018 movies were about teenagers begrudgingly taking part in these cruel practices, Tremors is about an adult man making choices about his family life. There’s more at stake, more to lose. As it is, thisis a quietly devastating character study of one man who cannot help but value the privilege of being around his kids should another earthquake strike.

Tremors played as part of the 2019 Miami Film Festival