Review: Roads in February

by Andrew Parker

Roads in February, the quietly stunning and impressive debut feature from Canadian filmmaker Katherine Jerkovic, is one of those rare films that can tell volumes worth of story without saying many words. Roads in February isn’t a silent film by any stretch, but writer-director Jerkovic’s material is so rich and lived in that characters merely have to look at each other to say what’s on their minds. They know exactly what’s happening between the lines, and the viewer does, too. And what’s unfolding between these characters is one of the most low key, but resoundingly emotional family dramas of the year.

Following the death of her father, Montreal based waitress and photographer Sara (Arlen Aguayo-Stewart) makes a pilgrimage back to the rural community of Espinillo in Uruguay where she was born. Sara hasn’t been back to her hometown since leaving the country with her parents a decade earlier, but she wants to visit and check in with her paternal grandmother, Magda (Gloria Demassi). Although Sara provided some sort of advance notice that she was going to be visiting, the elderly, but still relatively active Magda doesn’t seem particularly thrilled to see her granddaughter. She won’t immediately come out and say it, but just as Sara is searching for some link to her past in the wake of her father’s death, Magda is struggling to come to grips with the fact that she’ll never see her son again.

The first twenty minutes of Roads in February – which depict Sara slowly trying to make her way across the countryside to grandma’s house – sets the tone for everything to follow. Sara interacts with people, including a gas station attendant and someone who gives her a ride into town, but they don’t speak very much outside of pleasantries and practicalities. When Sara is asked about the purpose of her visit, she answers with long pauses, unsure of how to approach the situation or explain it. Her inability to talk about the purpose of her trip honestly doesn’t bode well for her eventual reuniting with her abuelita, which is genial enough, but the tension between the two is immediately apparent, and not merely on a cultural level. Those same pauses that Sara had when talking to strangers about her return to Uruguay is only amplified when she sits down to reconcile with Magda. The grandmother is never sure if Sara has returned out of obligation, grief, a need to clear the air, or simply for nostalgic purposes, and frankly the granddaughter seems just as emotionally confused.

Jerkovic, who deservedly picked up the Toronto International Film Festival’s prize for Best First Canadian Feature at least year’s festival and saw the film named to the organization’s prestigious ranking of Canada’s Top Ten, shows herself to be a versatile, detail oriented, and emotionally intelligent filmmaker with Roads in February. Jerkovic (who grew up and studied in several countries around the world, including in Latin America and Europe) has built a simple story of quietly grieving family members seeking closure around two characters who can say more to each other with simple glances, scowls, smiles, and gestures than pages of dialogue could ever hope to convey. The purest and most wrenching emotional outburst occurs rather early into Roads in February, during Sara and Magda’s first proper sit-down meal together. Neither woman will say exactly what’s on their mind, but they try to talk around it. Sara tries to be tactful and gentle, but one can visibly see the anxiety and discomfort this line of conversation is for Magda, as she nervously fiddles with her fork and keeps squeezing her side of bread. Gradually, their facial expressions will change (particularly Magda, who looks primed to explode) and civility will slip for a brief moment before those feelings are repressed yet again for a few more seconds, minutes, and hours. Magda has vented her true feelings about her son’s abandonment of their hometown to various friends and neighbours, but in the wake of his passing, she isn’t ready to open up to someone who has let her down by proxy. The death of Magda’s son isn’t Sara’s fault in the slightest, but the young woman’s presence is like seeing a ghost. Like many people who’re going through troubled times and are going through a period of self-reflection, happiness and sadness are feelings that come in waves; some large, some small, and many of them lasting for short bursts.

It’s those little touches that make Roads in February such a revelation to behold, and reminder that not all films about grieving families have to be pitched at a melodramatic level. Almost all of the estrangement between Magda and Sara – as well as their shared and differing memories of the past – is told visually. These characters don’t need to spell things out for each other, and honest feelings and opinions aren’t offered up freely. They have to be earned. Jerkovic’s construction is elegant in its specificity and restraint, but it’s sold just as well by Stewart and Demassi, a pairing of performers so exceptional that one might forget that they aren’t really related by blood.

The blocking of actors throughout Roads in February is noticeably sharp and reasoned when it comes to conveying distance, alienation, and disappointment, but Jerkovic’s visuals are just as important to the story even if there’s only a single character – or sometimes even none at all – within the frame. Roads in February exceptionally conveys what it’s like to look at Espinillo through Sara’s eyes. There’s a familiarity to the terrain, but like many small towns, it’s immediately apparent why Sara’s father took his family to greener pastures. Through the use of shifting focuses, terrain capturing wide shots, and telling close-ups, Jerkovic’s depiction of Sara’s birthplace is both beautiful and appropriately boring. The town has been dying for quite some time, and is now virtually devoid of opportunities for employment or amusement. There’s not much to do in Espinillo outside of sitting around and waiting for something to happen, which makes it somewhat fraught for someone like Sara who’s still struggling to talk to her grandmother. There’s plenty for Sara to observe and take pictures of, but almost no distractions from her intention to reconnect with her family and heritage.

Towards the end of Roads in February, Sara starts hanging out with a local that has a visible crush on her, and while that relationship is the least interesting and most predictable thing about Jerkovic’s work, it does provide the film a bridge that could slowly bring Sara and Magda back to a place of mutual peace. There are moments going into the conclusion of Roads in February that feel a little less assured than the captivating interactions from the film’s earlier moments, but everything still feels natural and part of a well conceived whole. It’s a full bodied, warm blooded, and subtle encapsulation of grieving, a search for cultural identity, and long unspoken familial disagreements yearning to be released. Anyone who has ever found themselves on the wrong side of a conversation with an estranged friend or family member will immediately see part of themselves in Jerkovic’s film. Roads in February turns a mirror onto the audience and does it with care, empathy, and a genuine interest in what the viewer and the characters will find.

Roads in February opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, July 19, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Roads in February:

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