Initiation cinema continues to be a living subgenre that goes through award seasons, with the wonderful ‘Belfast’ taking a few this year, it will not be difficult to find one from time to time and ‘Oliver’s Universe’ is not the first example of a use of fantasy as a balm for the description of a gray reality seen through the eyes of a child, in this case it is not the Ireland of the troublesbut the Algeciras of the 80s.
Alexis Morante’s debut does not have as much to do with the work of Kenneth Branagh, despite the fact that it touches on similar springs of nostalgia by describing an aggressive world with the imagination as an escape route, as with the already not so recent tendency to fit the Amblin pathway at different latitudes and memories, with which we have an inevitable gang with a fat boy, a little brother, glasses and a girl without scruples to play with boys and, of course, bicycles.
It is curious that the perspective of ‘ET’ (1982) is chosen —although looks much more like others coming of age with rockets like the extraordinary ‘The force of illusion’ (1992) u ‘october sky‘(1999)— to tell a story on the coast of the Gibraltar countryside, avoiding the indelible gaze of Mercero, but the trend continues on the edge of the expiration date with the success of ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘It’ (2017 -2019), of which not by chance there will be a prequel in the form of a television series. In Spain, the trend is not foreign and has catastrophically moved to two series that choose the 90s as a nostalgic option.
well meaning fantasy
Morante’s film travels to 1985 to tell the story of Óliver, a boy with a great imagination who arrives with his family in Algeciras when Halley’s Comet is about to pass by. With problems in the new school, in the neighborhood and at home, he finds comfort in his grandfather, who encourages him to help him interpret the message of the comet and to travel to space at the time of the astrological phenomenon. This serves as a countdown in the feature film, which manages to synchronize the different subframes towards the same point.
The main and most important is that of the basic problem in the family of Óliver, his father, a mischievous Spanish classic whose adventures with the game and his debts bring him closer to the Great Vázquez. His internal fight also has a basic problem with his father, which is where the hidden heart of the film lies, in such a way that the child’s journey holds the keys to resolving the parental conflict of a generation above. Is in the moments in which we follow Miguel when the film takes shape and justifies the much more conventional approach of the kids.
The magic that Oliver knows draws from slightly stale clichés, with that gypsy girl who has magical bugs or the idea of fantasy as part of the child’s imagination, never well developed, mixing lucid dreams with blackouts, and an almost obligatory inclusion of gender elements. The ideas with the gang do not go beyond replicating what has been seen in so many others, but it does not have the spark of ‘Christmas story‘ (2006) by Paco Plaza, who continues to be a pioneer of this type of story in Spain in the 1980s.
White Label 80s Nostalgia
As in ‘Once upon a time in Euskadi’ does in the Basque Country, ‘El Universo de Óliver’ describes very well the area of southern Spain and its problems, racism against the gypsies who try to integrate, the first scourges of smuggling and the scourge of unemployment in a country recently emerged from a dictatorship that finds that the economic problems are still there. Again, when the film works best is when it integrates that scenario with the fight between the characters of María León and Salva Reinaa well-constructed social drama even if it is not resolved satisfactorily.
The edge of the ambiguous tends to the earthly and ‘Oliver’s Universe’ spares us a cannonade of paranormal coincidences and whenever there is some Hollywood resolution approaching he makes more lukewarm decisions, sometimes with fortune, like the resolution of the party with the gypsies, and their concord without molasses and others with less, like the moment practically of the announcement of the Christmas Lottery in which Miguel’s redemption is decided.
‘Oliver’s Universe’ has charm and a solid, competitive visual presence, but confuses sentimentality with sugar and ends up abusing the 80s fantasy movie bulk soundtrack, so monotonous and repetitive that it ends up snatching the emotion from the moments that have really earned it, since a chase sounds the same as a climactic encounter with the grandfather. A lesson to consider, since it is not something minor but a pothole that turns what could have been a good movie into a nice attempt with sketches of a different cinema for Spain.