The first act of writer-director Carlota Pereda’s feature is a remake of her 2018 short film – a harrowing vision of everyday cruelty, with a nasty wish-fulfilment punchline. Sara (Laura Galán), a plus-size teenager, works in her parents’ butcher-shop over a long, hot summer in a parched town in Northern Spain – her father (Julián Valcárel) is just a little too eager to please his customers and blithely forces himself to ignore any problems in his family; her mother (Carmen Machi) is controlling, judgmental, demanding and angry; and her little brother is a brat who checks her browser history for porn.
Sara’s real problems come from the local mean girls and their loutish male equivalents, who nickname her ‘Cerdita’, post hideous memes about her online, and treat her with especial humiliating cruelty when she takes a dip in the local pool at off-hours so as not to draw attention – not only do Maca (Claudia Salas) and Roci (Camille Aguilar) half-drown her with a pool-cleaning net, but they steal her clothes so she has to trudge home in the blazing sun wearing only a tiny bikini (which passing roughs try to tear off her). Equivocal in all this is Claudia (Irene Ferreiro), who doesn’t take part in the bullying but does nothing to stop it either. On the road, exhausted by the shame and self-hatred, Sara comes across a white van and realises that a serial killer (Richard Holmes) has just abducted the three girls who were giving her a hard time – after murdering a lifeguard and a waitress at the pool. The bearded thug gives Sara Claudia’s towel, buying her silence … which, now this is a feature, isn’t where things end.
As the town is turned upside-down by suspicion, Sara fantasises about her saviour but also has few illusions about the kind of monster he really is. And maybe, in breaks from torturing and killing, the psycho is thinking about her. There’s a parallel with Larry Cohen’s Q, another film which tells a familiar story but focuses on a character who’d usually be a side issue – a bystander who has information that could lead to the monster’s defeat but has their own set of understandable reasons for not doing the right thing. Will Sara rat out the killer? Join him in his murder spree? Become his next victim?
Galán, who was in her mid-thirties when this was made, is extraordinarily convincing as a fifteen-year-old, and the tension of a finale that visits the killer’s lair is all wrapped up in whether Sara will act according to her desires or her conscious. It’s a tricky bit of plotting/motivation, which even takes into account an audience’s obvious desire for the punchline of the short (bullies punished!) while realising that the feature has to consider the long-term psychological effects of this sort of vengefulness. Framed in tight academy ratio, this has a great, sweaty, baking sense of its down-at-heel resort setting (there are distant echoes of the 1972 Spanish holiday horror A Candle for the Devil) and of the pressures on the protagonist from inside her oppressive family bubble and from the uncaring mob looking for someone – anyone – to scapegoat.