Juan Diego Botto’s directorial debut pulls no swings when it comes to social realism, it is a restless drama that follows a set of people with interconnected lives. Crossing paths at various points, they are all battling their own fights during a terrible Spanish recession. While the central topic of On The Fringe is nothing new or special, evictions and financial woes are on the minds of a multitude of people right now, especially in Europe due to the ongoing energy crisis, which makes the issues it tackles pressing and important.
Madrid, Spain. Police hastily knock on the door of a not-so-sprucy apartment. Inside, a child attempts to make a sandwich only to suddenly cut herself as the aggressive knocking begins. The child’s mother is nowhere to be seen, so she is taken to child services. Rafa (Luis Tosar), a busy, but nice rights lawyer, notices the child as she is dragged to the police car, which sets off his mission to find the child’s mother before the end of the day. Elsewhere, Azucena (Penélope Cruz) attends a protest against evictions, which is her struggle throughout the film as she tries everything in her power to avoid being evicted from her home. The final leading character is introduced, her name is Teodora (Adelfa Calvo), she’s a lonesome mother who is desperately trying to reconnect with her son.
Despite the subject being relevant and intriguing, On The Fringe doesn’t make for much of an engaging watch. This comes down to bad narrative organisation, which is a screenplay and editing issue. The interconnected are individually interesting but when combined it becomes way too convoluted. By focusing on just Penélope Cruz’s storyline, or any of them, it would’ve had the chance to be much more concise in its storytelling. There are three potentially good films within On The Fringe. But together, the constant back and forth comes across as scattered and disparate. It is an ambitious directorial debut that ultimately bites more than it can chew.
Cruz is the film’s calling card, she will undoubtedly be advertised as the film’s lead but surprisingly she isn’t. As aforementioned, Botto’s film is led by a trio of characters with interconnecting stories. The entire cast does a commendable job of bringing life to the film’s emotionally packed screenplay. At times, it teeters on the line of becoming overly melodramatic with the sheer number of arguments in the film, but great acting keeps the expressive scripting in check. Botto leads his cast down a path of sincere authenticity. By the end of the film’s Zurich Film Festival premiere, parents were seen comforting their tearful children, it certainly struck a nerve for many.
The film is in a constant state of restlessness, Botto doesn’t allow a second for spectators to take a break. Arnu Valls Colomer’s cinematography is the primary inciter as it doesn’t let up for the entire runtime. Almost every shot is handheld, presumably chosen to highlight the instability of everything. But it actually becomes quite distracting and a nuance as there is little time to connect with the characters due to its frantic, always moving nature. When Colomer’s camera slows down and takes a second, it’s in those moments that it becomes impactful. This is best seen in the latter half of the film where Adelfa Calvo’s Teodora has a final dinner before saying goodbye to her son, here the camera lingers, less bothered by trying to build up any Safdie Brothers-like tension. The stillness makes for an absolutely devastating scene.
Juan Diego Botto’s directorial debut is an emotionally driven film that highlights the ongoing, devastating housing problems in Spain, its effect on people and the different ways that everyone deals with their struggles; some fight, some give up, and some accept their fate. On The Fringe is a well-intentioned social realist drama that will hit a nerve with audiences, despite its flaws.
This review is from the 2022 Zurich Film Festival.