“On the Fringe” might be the most stressful film on Netflix right now.
A great cast makes this Spanish drama of desperation and quiet heartbreak not so much hard to watch as unhealthy to internalize. These are portraits of interconnected lives being pummeled by economic turmoil, an inflationary eviction crisis that hits the young, the old and the newly-arrived almost equally in actor-turned-director and co-writer Juen Diego Botto’s sober, unblinking story.
Botto’s feature-directing debut hides its cards, its interpersonal connections and the very roles — employment, marriage and otherwise — these disperate characters play in this crisis which threatens home and heart, jobs and marriages on a financial and existential level. Hiding those facts just adds to the stress, as we’re wrong-footed, confused and anxious for people we’ve just met on the screen.
Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz is Azucena, tearful and frazzled and defiantly taking her six year-old to school so that she can join a huge protest at a bank.
Luis Tosar (“The Vault”) is Rafa, rattled by a constantly-ringing phone, a wife (Aixa Villagrán) who complains “You should have told me I’d have to deal with this pregnancy alone (in Spanish with English subtitles)” as her “the amneocentesis is this afternoon” goes in one distracted ear and out the other.
Rafa has one early day errand — deliver his teen stepson (Christian Checa) to school for a long-planned excursion. But first, he needs to drop off some cooking gas for someone who needs it. And on that detour, he sees the aftermath of a police knock-and-take-into custody of a little Arab girl (Salma Naim Annassi).
Rafa didn’t see the badgering, barking, barely making an effort to be gentle and nice cop bullying his way into an illegal immigrant’s apartment, how his abrupt early-morning pounding on the door startled Selma and made her cut her hand as she was preparing her lunch for school. Mom left for work earlier.
Rafa’s frantic reaction sets the tone for “On the Fringe (En los márgenes).” He chases the cops on foot. He drags is stepson into the car — which he distractedly always leaves the keys in — and sets off on a reckless street chase.
Rafa is, it turns out, a lawyer with an immigration/social services agency. He knows if this child is shoved into “the system,” her nightmare is just beginning.
Stepson Raúl’s school trip? Out the door, with the kid bribed into spending the day, dismayed and enraged, passively resisting and openly hostile to Rafa and his latest “emergency.”
Rafa keeps introducing “my son.” Raúl keeps correcting him in front of colleagues and strangers. “STEP father.” But Raúl is one character — learning about protest organizing, finally grasping empathy — who has an “arc” here. He will journey from “I wouldn’t ruin my life for ANYone” to understanding Rafa’s “When you see (injustice, someone in crisis), you have no choice. You’re INVOLVED.”
Elderly Teodora (Adelfa Calvo) spends the day leaving forlourn and increasingly despairing messages for day-laborer son Germán (Font García), who gets an earful from his home demo-for-the-day colleague Manuel (Juan Diego Botto, also the film’s director) about not taking his mother’s calls.
This long day will test marriages, other family and professional relationships and virtually every character’s peace of mind, start to finish. Housing insecurity, impotent rage at what banks can do to you at your worst moment, the tightening jaws of an insensate state “system” among lives lived without a net, where one miscalculation, one mistake or one setback simply out of your control can be fatal all contribute to how uneasy and discomfitting this film is.
There’s cold reassurance that this financial/inflationary/housing/workforce “crisis” is worldwide, no matter how much the conservative media portray it in domestic terms in the U.S. What’s distressing is the sense that one and all are so overwhelmed they’re focusing on the band-aid needed right this moment, and not the severe injury it may portend.
Its quality is so refined that one can imagine “On the Fringe” playing in cinemas and not on a streamer. But what would you put on the poster? “Come to the movies, stress yourself out?”
Still, there’s no denying its power and the affecting performances, with Cruz, Tosar and Calvo standing out, and Annaassi’s little girl so helpless, frightened and upset she will haunt your dreams.
Rating: TV-MA, some violence, profanity
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Luis Tosar, Christian Checa, Adelfa Calvo, Aixa Villagrán, Font García, Juan Diego Botto and Salma Naim Annaassi.
Credits: Directed by Juan Diego Botto, scripted by Juan Diego Botto and Olga Rodriguez. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:45