An assured, confident feature debut from Colombian filmmaker Catalina Arroyave, Days of the Whale (Los días de la ballena) had its world premiere at SXSW in 2019 and now heads toward a virtual release with indie distributor Outsider Pictures on July 24, 2020.
Set in Colombia's second-largest city of Medellín, Days of the Whale follows Cristina (Laura Tobón) and Simon (David Escallón), two young graffiti artists who are part of an art collective at the center of a group of young revolutionaries. Simon lives with his grandmother, his working class existence fueling is constant drive to challenge. Cristina is a disinterested college kid from an upper-middle-class family whose journalist mother fled the country for Spain when her writings began to attract threats from local gangs. She lives now with her father, though her mother is constantly trying to get her to leave and join her in Spain.
The world that Arroyave creates here is a world that both celebrates the power of youthful expression while also realistically portraying how new ideas are challenged by fear and violence. Despite the temptation of leaving her city, Cristina is compelled to stay by the love that unites her with Simon and the empowering presence of her community of artists even as tensions rise after she and Simon not so subtly defy the gang's influence by painting over a "Snitches Get Stitches" tag with their own non-threatening yet powerfully illustrated portrait of a whale.
At a mere 80 minutes in running time, Days of the Whale tells its story efficiently yet substantially. Arroyave keeps things relatively simple and straightforward here, yet never lets us forget that there's layers of complexity present. Winner of the CherryPicks Female First Feature Award - Special Jury Mention at SXSW, Days of the Whale has also been recognized at Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, Cartagena Film Festival, Valladolid International Film Festival, and Sao Paulo International Film Festival. While the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the festival run, Days of the Whale is a terrific debut feature from Arroyave that definitely deserves to be seen.
Tobón gives a charismatic performance as Cristina, free-spirited and less drawn to academics while guiided by her expressive yet intuitive nature. You can feel her tension while dealing with family and you can understand how her art allows her to be herself. Escallón's Simon is more inherently tense, his more working class existence driving his understanding of the way his community works yet also his willingness to fight back against it even at great risk.
Among the supporting players, Christian Tappan is particularly impressive as Cristina's father while Margarita Restrepo, despite being seen primarily via webcam conversations, is incredibly impactful as Cristina's mother.
Days of the Whale benefits from a killer soundtrack, a vibrant mixture of Cuban salsa and Colombian hip-hop. David Correa's lensing is equally vibrant, tense without ever becoming ominous and wonderfully spirited. Victor Acevedo's original music is top-notch.
For many Americans, even the word "Medellin" carries with it a certain negative, even ominous, connotation. In many ways, while accepting the gritty truths of this urban city Arroyave also richly humanizes it in a rather remarkable way. Engaging and entertaining, Days of the Whale is a film you'll want to check out upon release and you'll also want to remember Arroyave's name as an up-and-coming Latin female filmmaker.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic