Lake Tahoe opens with a wasteland shot. Then the screen goes black. Then the shot reappears moved forward about 100 feet. Then the screen goes black. Then reappears. The movie is so full of these cuts to black that I thought my laptop was dying, or at least rebelling against my entertainment.
The most recent film from Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke (I’mbkay? Aimkeh? I have no idea) has the slimmest relation to the Lake Tahoe we know. Our neighborly vacation spot is about as far removed from the life of the young main character as the movie’s setting, Chicxulub, a hazy coastal town on the Eastern lip of Mexico, is to me and plenty of other San Franciscans just trying to cross the street as fast as possible.
Juan’s red Nissan could never take him to California, especially since he crashes it into a pole in the first 30 seconds. But a winter ski trip is never in the cards. For now he just needs a distributor harness to get the engine running again. The only way to get one of those in Chicxulub is to elicit help from a teenage mother into punk music, a well-bellied old man with a boxer (dog), and a nunchuck-wielding kid obsessed with Bruce Lee. Naturally.
People are calling it an absurdist drama. The emphasis is really on drama. There are plenty of eccentric characters and situations, all of which Juan quietly accepts. But the crux of the film is deceptively serious. Juan has to figure out in a hurry how to carry his family through a tragic time. Is it absurdly violent like Fargo? No. Is it absurdly endearing like Rushmore? No. Is it absurdly absurd like Stranger Than Paradise. Kind of.
The black screens we see again and again are the moments where things can unexpectedly happen, but usually don’t. Each one is a reminder that we don’t know what’s in store and that life can be utterly mundane. While each seems like a confusing eternity, the story inevitably resumes.
Lake Tahoe wants to be inbetween. Its playfulness is a little at odds with its tragic leanings, but the oddities are effective in highlighting how life, which can turn from ordinary to devastating in a instant, isn’t always something we have a lot of control over.