Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Having years earlier abandoned his rural hometown for a successful career in the big city, a prodigal son returns to his family estate upon news of his father’s impending death. The backbone of director Victor Nunez’s latest, Spoken Word, this familiar plot structure is only the tip of the formulaic iceberg, a foundation for more stale conventions than any indie should dare embrace. As a writer and director, Nunez is earnest and compassionate, but also crushingly literal, and there isn’t a single moment in his saga—about San Francisco poet Cruz (Kuno Becker) returning to the rundown New Mexico home, and drinking-and-drugging existence he fled, to care for his pancreatic cancer-afflicted terminal father Sr. (Rubén Blades)—that isn’t egregiously on the nose. Cruz’s verses (penned, in reality, by poet and co-writer Joe Ray Sandoval) are of a blunt, pretentious sort, often accompanied by montages of smeary landscapes and objects that precisely mirror the prose, and always inserted in spots where they might directly comment upon the action at hand. Thus, after a harlot hits on Cruz with the bewilderingly offensive come-on “You smell like dirt,” Nunez has his protagonist intone, in narrated voiceover set to imagery of scraggly soil, “This is our dirt, our garden.” See the relationship?
So it goes for the rest of the proceedings, in which Cruz is seduced back into his bad old ways by Dad’s evil nemesis Emilio (Miguel Sandoval), who owns a club one immediately identifies as a den of iniquity because it’s drenched in red and populated by sexually lose women. Similarly, one recognizes Cruz’s brother Ramon (Tony Elias) as someone who prizes money above family by his decision to always wear shirts and ties—as well as by Cruz constantly describing him this way. The gracelessness of the film’s dialogue extends to its aesthetics, which involve lots of “meaningful” acoustic guitar, awkward theatrical staging in which characters move about the frame as if on a string, and stock moments like the one in which, after Cruz checks on ailing Dad and finds him sleeping, the camera cuts to a close-up of the dying Sr. opening his eyes to reveal that he’s really awake. In such clunky circumstances, no genuine performances materialize, least not from the wholly unconvincing Becker, though at least Blades manages to sell a bout of puking while his paterfamilias valiantly attempts to chop wood in the snow. No surprise, then, that Reconciliation, Healing, and Reconnecting with Ancestral Lands are key elements of the film’s conclusion, what with the entire low-key schmaltzy endeavor functioning as nothing more than one big, fat cliché.