SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! El Planeta, Amalia Ulman’s feature directorial debut, is what a truly independent film is all about. The movie is a shared experience between a mother and daughter that could tread into the undeniably cheesy or depressing territory but has a tattered joy to it. It’s a low-budget slice of life, which we don’t see too many of these days. I’m glad that there is still room for unique stories and voices amongst the big-budget releases going directly to streaming services.
Ulman plays Leonor Jimenez, an out-of-work fashion stylist who has relocated from London to Gijon, Asturias, Spain, where she’s originally from. She lives in a small apartment with her mother, Maria Rendueles, portrayed by Ulman’s real mother, Ale Ulman. Maria divorced Leonor’s father, but he died shortly thereafter, leaving her without alimony checks. The family is going to lose their apartment in two months. You wouldn’t know it by how the women dress, eat, and otherwise conduct their lives. They’re refusing to believe that they are poor because, at one time, they were not. Maria shoplifts and puts items on a prominent politician’s tab at many places, claiming she’s his girlfriend. Leonor contemplates going into sex work until she realizes that it doesn’t pay anywhere near as much as she anticipated.
“…an out-of-work fashion stylist who has relocated from London to Gijon, Asturias, Spain…”
Ulman says that some of the scenarios in El Planeta are based on true-life experiences. The thing that interests me about that is that these women live outside of the law on their own terms. It doesn’t always work out for the best, but it certainly leads to an interesting life, especially for a poor person. This comedy shows us how important keeping up appearances is to some people and how much shame a person endures when they descend into poverty. It is exceptionally sad and poignant when Maria says that she doesn’t have a retirement plan, so in prison, at least she’ll have a place to stay and food to eat.
El Planeta is not political on its surface, but it certainly has a lot of subtexts that goes in that direction. The multiple closed storefronts covered in graffiti, the footage of an actual political protest at the end, the helplessness of both characters, etc. There is an enormous economic crisis in Spain where young people cannot find jobs in their home country. Leonor, or Leo as she likes to be called, is a victim of that. She is offered a job styling a Christina Aguilera cover shoot, but of course, the company won’t pay for her flight to New York, saying that the gig offers tons of “exposure.” What creative hasn’t heard that word in that context? Doesn’t it make you die inside a little each time you hear it?
Ulman knows the struggle. Which is something I definitely appreciate. Many people who work in entertainment who subsequently “make it” seem to forget how hard it is to come up in the industry. With El Planeta, Amalia Ulman shows is not one of those people. I hope that she stays true to her roots as her star rises, which I can assure you, it will.
El Planeta premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…not political on its surface, but it certainly has a lot of subtext that goes in that direction."