Petra Costa’s very personal documentary is about her sister Elena, 13 years older, who during the late ’80s left Brazil to become an actress in New York. Costa was then a child, with limited understanding of her sister’s motives and mental state following the move. Eventually and unsurprisingly, Costa later becomes an actress herself, then sets out to make a dreamy, elliptical film about Elena’s fate in a strange, uncaring city. Costa narrates the movie in English, though the doc is somewhat vague about her family’s educated, privileged background and the chronology of events.
The greatest mystery any of us are likely to encounter in life is that of our own family: How did it form, what are its secrets, where are its hidden-in-plain-sight tragedies and betrayals? Sarah Polley made her remarkable Stories We Tell about her uncertain parentage—an enigma that was gradually, artfully resolved. Costa, in her first film, has much less experience behind or in front of the camera. She retraces Elena’s unhappy steps, shares old home movies and family photos, plays us audio postcards from her sister, then runs out of filmmaking ideas after the movie’s big revelation at its midpoint.
“My fear is that I’d follow in your steps,” says Costa to her sister. “I drown in you.” That close identification and the film’s shadowy reenactments—Costa wandering through a blurry, wide-aperture Manhattan—are a bit much: genuine, affecting, and somewhat self-indulgent. Costa goes overboard with the Ophelia imagery in this lyrical, unconventional documentary, which is essentially an oblique essay on grief and loss. Still, whatever its shortcomings, Elena is unquestionably made out of love. Anyone who’s ever tried to understand a distant sibling will share in Costa’s heart-clenching incomprehension of a sister’s final act. Runs Fri., Aug. 8–Thurs., Aug. 14 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 80 minutes.