While our world is still a place of rich diversity, middle-class adolescence seems to follow the same basic pattern the world over: sexual discovery, rebellious music, and dreams of something bigger. For Estela, that something bigger is California, that rebellious music is new wave, and that sexual discovery comes in the form of a new boy with the look of a disaffected rocker who transfers to her high school.
In Califórnia, Brazilian director Marina Person’s debut feature, Estela is an adolescent girl coming of age in the São Paulo of 1984, a time where the Brazilian military dictatorship is loosening its grip on society, a generation of rock bands inspired by The Cure and Talking Heads is taking over local airwaves, and talk of an AIDS epidemic is stoking a slow-burning anxiety. Estela’s beloved, music-loving uncle Carlos happens to live in California, and Estela’s big dream of visiting him in the Golden State is complicated when he suddenly returns home with a deadly and unfamiliar disease.
Person is best known to Brazilian audiences as a long-running television personality on MTV Brasil, but when she recently retired after 18 years on the job, she admitted that her dream was always to be a filmmaker. The result is Califórnia, and judging from the trailer, Person has put together a handsome and stylish coming-of-age film, with all the trappings of teen drama that global audiences have come to expect. Non-Portuguese speakers may not be able to decipher exactly what’s going on without subtitles, but there’s plenty of rock music, angsty mugs, serious talks with parents, awkward dancing, and the obligatory running-free through-nature sequence.
Kudos to Person for taking all the wacky complexity of our teenage years and recognizing that coming of age doesn’t happen in an individualistic bubble. Indeed, as she seems to suggest with this debut feature, politics and social transformation are just as much part of our daily lives as rock ‘n’ roll is.