Jazmín López’s Leones is a classically mundane scenario, executed beautifully in 35mm: angst-ridden teenagers go for a stroll in the forest, rigorously shot in keeping with the current chic in art cinema for ominous, slow-burn long takes. On this basis, the film demands respect, as López’s adroit harnessing of natural light and ambient noise to construct a lush flow of image and sound brings to mind the work of Terrence Malick, Lucrecia Martel, and Gaspar Noé. As the frame hovers around each kid during their interminable hike through trees and fields, the narrative breaks down, roughly, to each individual breath of each individual member’s leg of the journey, often before gliding backward or forward to catch up to somebody else for a spell. The five friends play a word game modeled after Hemingway’s shortest story, “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” jokingly penalizing one another for going above the six-word quota. (The film’s opening line of dialogue is “I told her I loved her; she said ‘I know.’”) The tiny, fair-haired Isa (Macarena del Corro) is the main focus of López’s eye; she regularly complains to her friends (three guys and another girl) that she’s hungry or needs to take a break, but nobody affirms; in fact, nobody notices.
The dialogue, in other words, is brain-floggingly pretentious—theme-tantalizing riddles delivered vacuously. There’s at least one direct quote from Antonioni, as Isa watches her four friends play volleyball with an imaginary beach ball, with whapping noises added in post. She stares on in weary detachment, wearing an ad hoc crown of brambles. Leones charts a psychological progression from blissed-out meandering to a palpable sense of placelessness, which can only be ruptured by a shriekingly operatic (not to say literal-minded) plot twist any genre aficionado will smell from a mile away. López’s pivotal error is introducing disparate strands of pseudo plot—including a telltale tape recorder and a six-shooter which one of the boys empties out alone by a lake. (Or does he?) The teens’ collective daze at first seems like a Big Metaphor for their obvious wealth; the film features a lingering close-up on a Fjällräven backpack, and a climactic slow-creep reveal of a pair of iPod earbuds resting on a log.
It turns out their logjammed communication is the result of a MacGuffin that takes place before the film’s beginning, which the camera revisits in another long take (wrapping itself around a BMW) that adds up to frustratingly little. Rather than fleshing out the story’s underlying tensions, López’s pop-cultural sprinkles inevitably drag the film further away from its intended elementalism, making its implications alarmingly narrow. The film is ultimately a feverish daydream of upper-middle-class hipsters, with neither the teeth for satire nor the humanist details that engender solid drama. When the camera loosens and the kids trot off into the distance, slow wide-angle pans soak up the surrounding topography. Coming from a fine-arts background, López outfitted her camera with a pivoting, computer-controlled tripod so as to make her location its own silent character—and her 360° takes achieve a gracefulness that shakes out alternately menacing and chill. The forest emerges as the film’s deepest character.