Early in the mournful yet meditative documentary América, the ailing 93-year-old title character looks at the cameraman and asks, “What’s he doing?” The film follows three brothers as they care for the dementia-ridden América, their grandmother, in Colima, Mexico. When América breaches the fourth wall, it’s a moment of clarity that raises compelling questions. If a documentary’s subject is losing her cognitive abilities, can she consent to her inclusion? Is it better to work to stay alive, or to peacefully pass? Who should be making these decisions once one is no longer able to think for herself? These are topics viewers are likely aware of, but usually try to avoid addressing head-on. América runs just an hour and 15 minutes, but brings up enough such existential inquiries to fill a much longer film.
The beginning is deceptively sunny. Diego works at a surf shop, rides a unicycle, and dances around on stilts for a crowd. At first it seems the film might be a study of life on the boardwalk, but things quickly take a turn once he has to return to Colima. América is free of exposition, unfolding through scenes of daily life. Moments of drama, like Diego’s heated arguments with his brothers, Bruno and Rodrigo, arise naturally, and occasional fragments of seemingly diegetic music take the place of a score. In one particularly affecting moment, a snippet of “Comfortably Numb” can be heard as América lies stiffly in bed. Does she hear the music? There’s no way of knowing.
The film’s portrayal of aging is unsparing. América’s voice is a small, timid wheeze, and her face is gaunt. Her grandsons are tasked with showering her and helping her go to the bathroom. Watching such intimate functions makes for an uncomfortable experience. While directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside keep their camera at a respectful distance, their mere fact can be enough to make the viewer flinch. The brothers have philosophically driven arguments about the value left in their grandmother’s life. In a few fascinating, too-brief passages, Rodrigo and his girlfriend lead a meditation group. Such calm provides respite not just for the subjects, but also for the audience.
That América dies at the end is neither tragic nor overly dramatic, but inevitable. Death permeates the film, and when it comes, it feels of a piece with the meditation scenes. América is at home, in bed, trying her best to hobble around the house, tearfully asking to be left alone when she flickers with recognition at the frustration of her situation — and then, two years later, she’s dust in a container. Her grandsons hold the container as they smile through tears. It’s a moment both deeply personal and familiar to anyone who has experienced such loss.
América’s main shortcoming is its lack of characterization of América as a human being. It feels impossible to know what she was like when she was younger, so wholly entrenched is the documentary in her final moments. While it might benefit from this added context, it still stands as a solid portrait of the twilight of life, and all its attendant concerns. Late in the film, América, resting her head on Diego, says, “There are people who end up with nothing, right?” He responds, “That’s how we come into the world.” This could be seen as dark, but upon further consideration, it becomes hopeful. It could well be the thesis statement for this small but philosophically provocative slice of life.