Director: Julián Hernández

Cast: Ximena Romo, Mabel Cadena, Alejandra Herrera, Nelly González, Samantha Orozco, Axel Arenas, Pascacio López

Country/Language: Mexico/Spanish

Genre: Crime drama

Netflix release date: August 11, 2021

Duration: 2 hr 7 min

Rating: 18+

‘Asphalt Goddess’ feels like a film made for hipsters. Not just any hipster, but PUNK hipsters. Like young people who feel outcast from their own homes, and instead of turning to music, they get a camcorder and make amateur movies and screen them in rundown garages or abandoned drive-in theatres. ‘Asphalt Goddess’, which is directed by Julián Hernández and written by Inés Morales and Susana Quiroz, feels like that film.

The crime drama is loosely based on a true event that happened in the 1980s and follows a gang of juvenile delinquents in a slum area of Mexico who came to be infamously known as the “Castrators of Santa Fe”. The five young women are Max (Ximena Romo), Ramira (Mabel Cadena), Carcacha (Nelly González), Sonia (Samantha Orozco) and Juama (Alejandra Herrera).

First, let’s discuss what the movie does right

Max, Ramira and co. are all different teenagers with unique personalities and appearances of their own which sets each girl apart from the others. It can be tricky to remember so many characters, and even more troubling to film them all, but the director and writers manage it so well so that by the end of the movie, we the audience remember each of them – their quirks and flaws.

The crime drama has ravishingly beautiful cinematography as it manages to find spectacle in the most desolate locations. The landfill, which should look filthy, is eye-catching with brightly coloured plastics and fabrics. In another scene, the city lights shine bright in the distance while it is nighttime. Even wallpapers in houses are a sight to behold: each a different and colourful pattern. They might remind you of Spanish films by Pedro Almodovar like ‘Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1988) and ‘Julieta’ (2016).

There is clearly a commitment to visuals here. Not just the cinematography, but the sets and props are top-notch too. We see damaged walls splattered messily with graffiti. We see Juama practice spiritual healing in her shack; her tables are filled with trinkets, crystals, incense and candles. When the gang attends a party, we see broken down cars in shabby parking lots where the kids hideaway for make-out seshes. Even the costumes are detailed with each telling us of the personality of each girl. The prim and proper Sonia pairs denim jackets with pastel-coloured dresses and wears a sling bag across the shoulder. Juama is a poor orphan who lives in a shack. We see her with dishevelled hair, and tattered, oversized clothes. Max is an aspiring rock musician and we see that in the punk haircut and leather jacket & jeans that she sports.

Now the hiccups…

Julián Hernández often tries to ‘break the rules’ when it comes to cinematography and in a way, he does. He employs artistic choices like slow zooms, dizzying camerawork, quick pannings, and the uncommon camera tilts which might make you sick. They are, perhaps, meant to give the film a sense of restlessness and put us in the headspace of the girls who are at the centre of this story. In fact, they reminded me of the dizzying visuals in another coming-of-age Netflix film: 2019’s ‘Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy’ (directed by Yūki Yamato), a hot mess in its own way. When this Japanese film was released, it frustrated the audiences then. And ‘Asphalt Goddess’ may also frustrate audiences now, while others could get used to it.

A major mistake here was the lack of audio cues like scoring to accompany the restless visuals. While the camera is bobbing up and down, there is often dead silence. The use of the right music could have elevated some sequences to hard-hitting thriller territory, in the company of urban-set classics such as ‘Trainspotting’ (Danny Boyle, 1996), ‘City of God’ (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002) and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, 2008). But the silences render some scenes awkward.

And some shots last unnecessarily long, such as when the antagonist Casiano does hair grooming, or simply totters back to his house and shuts the gate. Shots like these were better off left at the editing floor since they only made the film drag.

There is also the matter of acting… The banter of the girls goofing about or the scene where Max plays her guitar to a crowd, feel like a street performance rather than a film. The artificiality flashes bright here and tears away the illusion of ‘cinema’ to make these actors look like kids who are simply playing dress-up and holding a street play. In simpler words, the acting isn’t the most immersive. But we do get some good performances from Samantha Orozco, Alejandra Herrera and Pascacio Lopez.

To conclude…

‘Asphalt Goddess’ can be brutally violent and has scenes of gang violence, brief male nudity, drug use and sexual assault. It can also be brutal to your senses because it’s sickening. It will test your patience with its dragging pace and awkward acting. But it’s not so bad for those who are looking for all-female ensembles or a punk aesthetic or are into themes of slum life or gang violence.

‘Asphalt Goddess’ is now streaming on Netflix.

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