Sundance Review: 'El Planeta' Is a Strong First Outing from a Rare Talent Directed by Amalia Ulman
Starring Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Zhou Chen
Published Feb 01, 2021There's something jarring about the fact that day-to-day poverty is almost never represented onscreen in modern cinema, but that's just one of many factors that makes the dramedy El Planeta such a uniquely relatable joy. The film, which marks the debut feature from multidisciplinary internet artist Amalia Ulman, is an assured breath of fresh air that manages to blend tragedy and comedy, multiple genre aesthetics, and worlds both foreign and familiar to North American audiences. It's an assured debut that will hopefully launch a deep filmography from Ulman.
Though she says it's not autobiographical, the film is set in Ulman's hometown of Gijón, Spain, where the city's tourism based economy has been in steady decline. Returning from a lavish life as a hip fashion designer in London, Leonor (Ulman) is trying to keep up chic appearances while living in a tiny apartment with her mother María (played by Ulman's real-life mother, Ale Ulman). The pair scam and scheme, buying items on layaway and charging lavish meals to a fictional rich boyfriend in order to stay afloat with mounting debts and no real income. Meanwhile, Leonor is offered a job styling a new Christina Aguilera promo campaign in New York, but it only pays in exposure and she can't afford the plane ticket.
The laziest read of El Planeta is that it's Frances Ha for the Editorial Magazine generation, as Amalia's stark black-and-white portrayal of a confused young woman chases its high-brow cinematography with silly screen transitions straight out of terrestrial TV. That comparison is overly reductive, as El Planeta offers even more insight in its low-key scenes, which take their time as Leonor wanders around the sleepy, seaswept town.
As a multidisciplinary internet artist with no shortage of impressive credentials, Ulman seems to know exactly what she wants to say and has no shortage of ways to communicate with her audience. Still, El Planeta proves that her work can be relatable to audiences far wider than the modern art world. As such, someone would do best to have her make more movies and TV shows for years to come. (Holga's Meow Pictures)