There has been a strong showing of South American films at this year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival, with Argentina leading the way. For a decade or so the government has been increasingly subsidizing the local cinema industry, to produce well-made, classy films that can beat Hollywood at its own game. But in response to growing state control, a faction has formed loosely around filmmaker and teacher Mariano Llinás to produce a project of a far more adventurous nature. Although not a glossy product by any means, it’s to the credit of Aguas verdes that it could be from either camp (funded in part, by both the government and the national film school).

The title appears in a nicely ironic fashion over a sink of dirty dishes. Aguas Verdes is a beach resort to which bearded bourgeois social worker Juan is taking his wife and two children to vacation. He’s an intelligent and authoritative husband and father, but his family is on the brink of chaos. His children are always fighting (teenage Laura and pre-pubescent Aribal), his psychiatrist wife always forgets to lock the front door, and his car is a half-rusted rattletrap.

Once at the resort, it’s the film’s mission to worry and humiliate him as he completely fails to relax and enjoy his vacation. His wife makes friends with a pair of lesbian school teachers whom he brands ‘idiots’, Aribal is reportedly a sexual menace to the other kids, and he’s desperate to protect Laura from the handsome roguish-seeming but unfailingly polite Roberto (not that he seems concerned about her frankly inappropriate bikini bottoms).

The details of family interaction are observed with near-hilarious exactness. Rarely has a summer vacation film of potential sexual abandon been evoked so perfectly. It’s deeply funny – amusingly overwrought music is used to signify Juan’s panic as he feels himself being socially railroaded and imagines his family, authority or masculinity being threatened. But there are real hints of menace when he loses sight of Aribal over a dune and hears strange noises outside the bedroom at night. We have a feeling things will come to a head.

But the head is botched. It’s sudden but not unexpected, brief but not shocking, and the aftermath is immediately steered off into animal kingdom allegory, admittedly stylish, but an unsatisfying sidestep. It betrays the attention to character and detail thus far displayed, and possibly even the unrelieved tension of a lack of climax would have been preferable; it’s a great shame, since in one fell swoop the disturbing undercurrents are cheapened and an otherwise pitch-perfect hour and a half of excellent character study is spoiled.

Rating: 7.69/10