The Good Girls / Las niñas bien (2018)
What a difference it makes when a female centric story is told by a group of female filmmakers. Mexican director Alejandra Márquez Abella’s newest film “The Good Girls / Las niñas bien” is just that: a story about women told by women.
Set in 1982, “Las niñas bien” follows Sofía (Ilse Salas), a wealthy housewife living with her businessman husband Fernando (Flavio Medina) and their two children. The story follows her over the course of one year beginning with a lavish birthday party hosted at her expensive mansion and ending with a quiet, more intimate birthday at a restaurant. In Mexico there is a very strict social division between the upper and lower classes. For the upper class, there is this country club lifestyle that you either belong to or you don’t. It’s difficult to break in but once you do you’re expected to live up to everyone’s expectations. There’s a certain protocol for how to dress, how to behave, what to say and how to present yourself. Sofía is a model “niña bien” for her circle of wealthy lady friends. When the debt crisis hits Mexico, her husband’s work and the family finances are in jeopardy. As Sofía’s world falls apart she must contend with her rapidly diminishing social influence and Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan), an unpolished newcomer to the country club circle who idolizes Sofía. Throughout the film Sofía narrates her story. There are additional elements we learn about including her Julio Iglesias fantasy, the black butterfly that is a harbinger of bad luck and her disgust for the lower class whom she calls simply “Mejicanos”. We also learn about the stifling gender dynamic that puts Sofía in a vulnerable and powerless position as her husband exhibits self-destructive behavior. “Las niñas bien” is a riveting portrait of an upper class woman in decline.
This movie was inspired by popular Mexican author Gaudalupe Loaeza’s collection of short stories and articles, “Las niñas bien”, published in 1985. Loaeza, a member of Mexico’s upper-class, wrote social critiques that were accessible to mainstream readers. She went on to write over 40 books and continues to write articles for newspapers today. In “Las niñas bien” she explores the world of the bourgeoisie during the 1982 financial crisis when Mexico defaulted on their sovereign debt and the value of the peso wildly fluctuated.
Film producer Rodrigo Sebastian Gonzalez came upon the book purely by accident when he was introduced to Loeaza by her son. He realized that with Loaeza’s rich bibliography there was a filmmaking opportunity that he needed to pounce on. In a conversation at the world premiere of “Las niñas bien” at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), he had the following to share:
“I went with my partner Rafael Levy from Moo Films and with [producer] Gabriela [Maire] and we thought we have a very good opportunity to really take these characters and the environment that Guadalupe Loaeza created. To create a story about these women. This woman a writer, four women in the story so we needed a woman director and also a photographer woman and all the point of views from women to create this movie. [Alejandra Márquez Abella] reviewed all the books. We did a lot of research about all of the characters and she started to write the script.”
Gonzalez was one of two men, including art director Claudio Ramirez Castelli, on what was essentially an all-female crew to develop “Las niñas bien” to film. Márquez Abella said about the experience “Every conversation that we had was about being a woman and how different we were from these women in the story. This focus changes the soul of the film, especially when you have a crew that has as many women in control as this one did.” It was a confluence of different creative minds coming together that really made the film come alive. Producer Gabriela Maire said, “Even though Rodrigo was always taking care of us, we felt really strong working with women. One of the best things this movie had was the crew that we had.
Márquez Abella wrote the script for “Las niñas bien” with a clear vision that this would not be a comedy. She felt strongly that society should stop laughing at the Mexican upper-class and take them seriously. In a Q&A at TIFF, Márquez Abella said, “social inequality and classism should be taken seriously. I have this secret wish that people will stop aspiring to be Sofía. Because I think in Latin America, at least in Mexico that I can speak of, you are either the oppressor or the oppressed. And you forget you were the oppressed when you’re the oppressor.” The debt crisis was a dire time in Mexico’s history. The president at the time José López Portillo famously proclaimed that we would defend the peso like a dog and this is shown in the final scene in the movie when Sofía and others bark at Portillo when he enters a restaurant. Actress Ilse Salas says, “The dollar was like 200 percent up for one day to another. It was really bad. Rich people started to commit suicide. That was very common.” Why tell a story from 36 years ago? The director said, “It’s so similar to these times. It’s like nothing has happened and time has frozen. A lot has changed but nothing has changed.”
When Márquez Abella and her team were looking for their Sofía they approached Salas for her strengths as a dramatic actress. Salas was adamant that this not be a comedy because she found “those characters quite disturbing. This empty life, those details which are really interesting and beautiful.” Salas went on a journey from hating Sofía to finding a meaningful connection with her. In the film Salas does so much with a purse of the lips and her determined stare. We get a sense that Sofía is a woman in a state of emotional turmoil who is trying to find her agency throughout the whole process. Much of the film is in Sofía’s head but Márquez Abella and her composer Tomás Barreiro employed a unique sound element with the sudden appearance of synchronized clapping. For the director, this was to interrupt the story and change the perspective. It allows the audience to take in all the information and process it before diving back in. When I first heard the clapping I was completely thrown off but it was effective in kicking me out of the moment so I could re-enter the story with another mindset. Márquez Abella envisioned this as a chorus “making a judgment of certain things at certain moments.”
For those of you who love period pieces, “Las niñas bien” has a lot to offer with the attention to 1980s era detail. Author Loaeza was one of those “niñas bien” and much of the wardrobe in the film is from her own closet. The director noted that the book was a rich source of material because of how Loaeza describes precise details from everything from earrings to forks. Shoulder pads, a ’80s staple, even become part of the story. They represent Sofía’s struggle to keep up appearances.
“The Good Girls /Las niñas bien” is a fantastic social satire. This is the director’s second feature film. Her first, “Semana Santa”, also premiered at TIFF and is available to view on Netflix and other services. If you have an opportunity to watch “Las niñas bien”, a beautiful film about women and made by women, don’t pass it up.