El Bola

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El Bola

Achero Mañas' child-abuse drama El Bola won awards for Best New Director, Best New Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Film at Spain's Oscar-equivalent Goya Awards, and no wonder: With its direct style and hot-button subject matter, it's prime awards bait. The film aims to engage the audience with the plight of Juan José Ballesta, who plays a shy kid nicknamed "Pellet" (or "El Bola" in Spanish). Ballesta lives in a well-appointed middle-class home dominated by his father, a hardware-store owner who projects a nondescript pleasantness to his customers but acts cruel and controlling toward his son. When Ballesta makes a new friend—a willful, self-possessed boy played by Pablo Galán—the time he spends with Galán's looser, more loving family lets Ballesta know that there's something terribly wrong with his own surroundings. Mañas' plot depends on physical and psychological violence, and the broad contrasts between Ballesta's home and Galán's sets up a too-easy "rush home and hug your children" message. But El Bola also skillfully exemplifies the "what unsupervised adolescents do all day" exposé. Mañas demonstrates a strong grasp of how two 12-year-old boys talk to each other, and how they relate in the muddled days before they have full command of their emotions or their ability to swear convincingly. Ballesta and Galán hang out, smoke, look at dirty pictures, laugh, and lose all sense of maturity and control when they ride roller coasters. Mañas also grasps the dynamic of an abusive home, in the way the abuser carefully hides his shameful treatment of his son, and expends excessive energy tracking his boy's comings and goings. What mostly elevates El Bola, though, is the performance of Alberto Jiménez, who plays Galán's father, a tattoo artist proud of his bohemian lifestyle and his casual relationship with his kids. When Galán conceals Ballesta's whereabouts from their respective fathers and from the authorities, Jiménez grapples with the lack of power he has over his own offspring, born of the light-disciplined atmosphere he's fostered. When El Bola isn't drawing cheap sentiment from the sight of a bruised and scarred little boy, Mañas raises vexing questions about how and why parents leave lasting impressions on their children, and whether good intentions really matter.