Whatever its other moments of beauty or weakness, Porto contains one bittersweet, potentially unnerving image that few other films can claim: the sight of Anton Yelchin growing old. The talented actor died tragically and far too soon last year at the age of 27, and while Porto is not the last film Yelchin shot or the last one he’ll appear in (Thoroughbreds will be out in 2018), it is perhaps the biggest role he left behind. Part of the movie is structured around a one-night stand between Jake (Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) that bears a passing resemblance to a sexier Before Sunrise. It’s another American guy and another French girl together in a European city with few other major characters—though here they’re both expat residents of the Portuguese town of the title, rather than tourists.
Porto also leaps forward in time to glimpse both characters on their own, years after their brief shared time together, which is how the movie comes to regard an older version of Yelchin: a little hunched, a little hobbled, hair graying, puttering around. Aging up a younger performer is a risky move, but Yelchin takes to it with heartbreaking ease. Even in his relative youth, seeds of that later loneliness (and early stages of desiccation) seem to have been planted.
Porto opens with Jake and Mati facing each other in bed, then divides itself into three sections: one for Jake, one for Mati, and one for the two of them together. Although their meeting isn’t shown right away, the movie establishes early on that they first noticed each other on the site of an archeological dig where Mati was working, then coincidentally spotted each other again that night and forged an unexpected, instinctual connection. The first two segments cut between bits of Jake and Mati’s whirlwind night together and their respective present-day situations, while the third digs further into their fateful encounter.
Through this scrambled chronology, conversations between the two of them are revisited with additional details revealed, and though the movie wafts through the mistiness of memory, it does so in unexpected ways. Director-cowriter Gabe Klinger shoots on film, using 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm stock, and neatly reverses the convention of depicting the past with the grainier, less polished format: The scenes set later are in lower-fi 16mm with a boxy aspect ratio, while the Jake/Mati scenes taking place in the past have a widescreen clarity. Klinger leads up to Jake and Mati’s first interaction at a restaurant with a graceful shot where the camera tracks back and forth across the room, and in general the final section features longer takes, including a three-minute unbroken shot following Jake carrying a heavy box from Mati’s car to her apartment.
Klinger has written for Sight & Sound and Cinema Scope, and Porto has some of the fussiness that might be associated, fairly or not, with a critic making his own movie; the 8mm-shot accents he applies to the story, for example, are less evocative than his 35mm compositions. A bigger problem turns out to be Jake, despite Yelchin’s strong work. The movie depends on a certain he-remembered/she-remembered mutual subjectivity, but that’s thrown off when Jake’s section is nearly twice as long as Mati’s despite being about half as interesting, which also mutes Lucas’ otherwise strong performance. On top of that grows the suspicion, based on his later-timeline wanderings, that Jake might be something of a creep. Porto seems to confirm this around the half-hour mark through a quick but indelible action that hangs over the rest of the movie, even when the filmmakers don’t seem to be thinking much about it.
Occasionally, the filmmaking is seductive enough to wave away that unpleasantness; passages of Porto are romantic, sexy, and heartbreaking, as two people are pulled together for reasons they both feel but can’t entirely explain (though regrettably, the characters do attempt to describe this feeling). There’s a bittersweet mystery in seeing the pieces of this relationship fall into place but not knowing exactly why it’s so fleeting. But leaving the immediacy of both the initial attraction and the quick dissolution largely unexplained is a pretty thin conceit on which to build an entire feature film, even one with a slim 76-minute running time and two capable performances. Its strongest evocation of poignant, imperfect memory has to do with its leading man, and the glimpse it provides of a fuller career that never was.