With Days of the Whale, writer/director Catalina Arroyave Restrepo steps right out of the gate with a strong debut feature. Her story of two Colombian graffiti artists falling in love against the backdrop of gang violence and domestic disputes has its share of flaws but nevertheless remains engaging thanks to the ingenuity of Restrepo’s low-budget filmmaking.
Newcomers Valeria Castaño Fajardo and David Escallion Orrego are fantastic as our two leads, Valeria and Simon. Alongside them is a convincing cast of unknowns, most of whom seem to be skilled graffiti artists in their own right. Christian Tappen (Netflix’s “Narcos”) also shines as the only veteran actor in the film, and his performance as Valeria’s concerned father proves to be one of its strongest elements.
Restrepo also demonstrates a confident directorial vision without being showy. With the camera always mobile, Days of the Whale leans more toward a cinéma vérité aesthetic for the majority of its run time — an approach I greatly appreciate. However, Restrepo makes the mistake of interrupting her film’s naturalistic flow with symbolic images of whales comically washed up in the middle of downtown traffic. This artistic choice repeatedly falls flat and feels out of place with the rest of the picture.
There are some other problems as well, including strange musical choices in what should be more meditative dramatic sequences and an ending that seems incredibly anticlimactic, especially with the tense buildup that precedes it. However, these types of missteps are common issues with first-time directors and are greatly overshadowed by the stronger aspects of Restrepo’s filmmaking.
Days of the Whale may not stick with viewers the way its filmmaker desires, but its raw depiction of graffiti artists in Medellín and the strong naturalistic performers that populate the movie’s world make it worth seeking out.
Available to rent starting July 24 via grailmoviehouse.com