Petra Costa’s Elena is a heartfelt, deeply personal story of the most important person in this filmmaker’s life and how losing Elena Costa forever altered Petra and her mother. In being so personal, I’m sure it is incredibly powerful for its creator and those in her inner circle (or those who have dealt with related issues of depression and loss) but far too much of it plays like someone else’s home movies, and the total sum of the piece doesn’t add up to anything significantly memorable beyond its core subject. This is Elena and Petra’s story, and Costa never makes the required effort for it to feel universally relevant or of emotional impact to anyone but their family.
Elena Costa was a beautiful Brazilian woman who moved to New York City to follow her dreams of becoming an actress and was overtaken by her depression and a cutthroat world that doesn’t support people who feel lost and homesick. Elena’s sister Petra, years later, tries to capture her sister’s arc and discovers something about herself at the same time. The effort is noble and heartfelt but never engaging. As much as Elena has been a mystery to her sister, a wispy memory of the big sis who left her far too soon, the film about her remains just as elusive.
A large portion of Elena consists of home movies of its title character, letters she wrote, and audio recordings. She becomes almost ghostly in Costa’s slowed-down appreciation of this sweet girl who supported her younger sister and was heartbroken when she left her. Little is revealed about the depth or source of Elena’s depression, which makes sense given the fact that it’s reflected through a sister who was quite young as it was happening to her loved one, but that viewpoint makes for a biographical documentary of a person that we simply never get to know. Perhaps Costa’s point as a filmmaker is that she too never got to know Elena but that’s not a point that’s effectively made through the film. It’s just a piece of work that one can never get their hands on.
Elena Costa lived a familiar life. Long segments of Elena capture her at home with her sister, largely due to the fact that she shot home movies starting at age 13. Her love for shooting home movies transformed into a love for theatre and performance, which took her to Sao Paolo and eventually New York. Leaving her mother and sister behind broke a crucial bond between all three and it’s easy to see why Petra chose to use her filmmaking skill to try and clarify that bond and the impact of its break on her life.
Costa shoots and edits Elena in a way that’s very intentionally mysterious and wistful. Shots of nature, a dress flowing underwater, the sky, leaves, and, most importantly, the cold city streets of New York, blend together in a way that blurs the line between whether we’re watching Elena or Petra’s story. Of course, we’re watching both, the story of two lost girls, one who gave into her depression and the impact that had on the other. The fact that their stories don’t make for filmmaking that works on more than a personal level is not meant as a slight on how much it must mean to them. But it is difficult for any filmmaker to make the personal feel universal and Elena serves a reminder of that difficulty.