VIFF 2019 Review: Joel
Joel is a family drama from Argentina. It’s based on an adoption scenario that tells more about the society than about the adoption process.
Cecilia and Diego are a couple in a small Argentinean mountain town of Tolhuin in the Patagonian forests. Cecilia is a music teacher and Diego is a successful forester. They’ve been hoping to start a family, but it hasn’t worked out. They decide to pursue the Argentinean adoption system. They’ve received news their request from the government has been granted. They also learn about a boy who is up for adoption. They’re told he’s eight years old and his name is Joel.
They are informed that Joel is actually nine years old. Joel comes from a troubling family background in Buenos Aires. His mother died and was soon looked after by his uncle and grandmother. His uncle soon ended up in prison and Joel had since been committed to institutions. Cecilia and Diego are both excited and nervous about taking on Joel. They look forward to being his parents, but are cautious about what they might have to deal with. The two meet Joel for the first time. The two are both excited and nervous while Joel is quiet and shy.
Cecilia and Diego make the efforts to be parents to Joel. They give him his own room and allow him to pick out his own clothes. There’s a party to introduce Joel to the family. Samuel and Virginia, a religious couple whom they are friends with, are pleased to meet Joel. Cecilia and Diego also enroll Joel into the town school. They have a lot of high hopes, but are nervous.
One day, they find a cellphone in Joel’s drawers that’s not his. They return it to the school but the people aren’t happy. Then Cecilia receives word that Joel will have to be given a teaching schedule different from the other students and separated from them. The reason why is made unclear to Cecilia at first. The teacher reveals that Joel has been telling the children stories about doing drugs.
This is alarming the parents. The outrage has gotten to the point that the parents do not want their children to be around Joel. This is having a strain on the relationship of Cecilia and Diego. Those close to them, including Samuel and Virginia, are distancing themselves from them. Even Diego’s boss weighs in about what is to be done with Joel. Cecelia is even told if she gives up on Joel, he could be sent back to the institutions where he eventually grows up to live a life of crime and die young.
There’s a school meeting about what is to be done with Joel’s educational setting. The meeting is fiery with many parents speaking out their hostility. One of the mothers confronts Cecilia and tells her that she was adopted too and the attitudes that are happening are similar to what she experienced. Then the teacher and school director finally meet with Cecilia to discuss their final decision. It’s a decision they’re optimistic with. They have decided to have Joel spend six months in a ‘special school’ up in the mountains where they believe he will be better-adjusted in time to have him brought back to the school. Cecilia is not happy with the result. Diego insists she goes along with it because his boss believes it’s the right thing. As Cecilia is about to drive Joel to his temporary school, she makes her own critical decision on the matter.
This film tells of an adoption story in Argentina. However the film does show a lot of elements that one anywhere in the world can identify with. There’s the legal process which is common in most countries; there’s the fact that Diego and Cecilia will be parenting for the first time ever; there’s the adoption of a boy from a troubling background from the big city; there’s trying to get the boy to fit into a smalltown setting. There’s even the mission of the Argentinian adoption system: “Our aim is to find parents for the children, not children for the parents”.
Here in North America today, adoption should be a non-issue. Some countries or cultures may have a negative stigma about adoption whether it be the adoption process or about the children adopted. I’m not knowledgeable at all about how most Argentinians view adoption. All I know is the laws stated in the film and nothing else. However I did see a theme that we commonly see even in towns or villages of developed countries like Canada and the US. A city kid is taken into a home in the countryside to be given a life and a family. What happens is ostracism not just of the kids, but of the parents too. Even a client of Diego’s weighs his own opinion on this. The film shows a common theme of smalltown narrow-mindedness where they can be hostile to outsiders. In this case, we have the children, parents and teachers that are mostly against Joel being in the town and schools. Lines like “Our children are pure and live in a lovely town. Why should they have to put up with him?” sound like they’re echoes from common-talk. That scene of the mother who was adopted and faced similar flack says a lot about these attitudes.
The quality of the story also gets the audience involved and gets them wondering who or what to side with. Joel appears harmless, but he comes from a troubled background in Buenos Aires. Cecilia and Diego took Joel away to give him a family life and to take him away from the inner city threats that could endanger him, including from his own blood-family. Joel acts harmless around the house, but the teachers, parents and students all tell a different story. You even see things that make you wonder like how Joel arrived with a packet containing a lighter, money and a toy, or even the cellphone he either found or stole. You never see Joel do any of the things those parents say he does, but even if Joel said those words or stole the phone, this is very common among children his age. Wrong, but common among boys his age. It’s the people’s overreactions that are causing the problem.
In the meantime, this causes problems with both Joel and the family. They’re undecided about what to do or what actions to take. It’s right at the end where Cecilia makes her decision. I think that’s the biggest quality of the film. The film is about a story that’s very down to earth and is something a lot of families can relate to. It’s about facing the difficulties of doing the right thing. It’s about trying to give love to a child with quite a backstory, but trying to be a parent and doing what’s right. It’s about trying to get acceptance in a place where the hidden narrow mindedness comes out. I don’t think the story is meant to defame Tolhuin in any which way, but it presents itself as a story that can happen in any Argentinian town. It’s a story the audience can easily put themselves in the shoes of Cecilia and Diego. What would they do? What’s the best thing for Joel? It even gets the audience asking what would you do?
This film is a very good film from writer/director Carlos Sorin. Sorin is one of the most renowned directors from Argentina. 2002’s Historias Minimas is his most renowned work to date having won him many film festival awards including the FIPRESCI Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. What he delivers in Joel is a film that lacks the envelope-pushing and artistic daringness that one expects to have as film festival fare. Not every film at the VIFF aims to be artistically daring or provocative or experimental. Sometimes the films at the VIFF are films that are among the best their country has to offer. Sorin is a director with a reputation. He places reality on the film screen and tries to make a statement with the story. He succeeds in doing so in Joel. He presents an example of a situation and gets one thinking of the attitudes that he sees in Argentina. There was a lot of good acting, but it’s Victoria Almeida that is the centerpiece of the film as Cecelia. She holds the story together as it mostly revolves around Cecelia and her desire to be a mother and to do what she needs to. Especially for Joel.
Joel is a family drama that tells of an adoption story in Argentina, but there are many elements of the story that one can see happening close to home. The story succeeds with messages that cross borders and cultural barriers.