While a studio’s first efforts often result in work that is applauded for simply getting off the ground, La Chingona Films have managed to make their debut project, A Mi Manera, an exemplary and charming body of work that excels in the vision it set out to create. The fifteen minute experience is a brutally honest film detailing the story of sixteen year-old Aria, who is dealing with the fact that she is dying of terminal cancer. The film has a deeply nuanced approach in the way that it handles Aria navigating certain death: by having our main protagonist plan her own funeral which she plans to attend herself, alive.
THE PLOT + ANALYSIS
Before I continue, this review will contain spoilers. So, if you have not had a chance to check out the film, it would be a very good idea to do so. Anyways, let us continue.
The plot of the film centers around Aria and her best friend, Gemma, who set out to plan a funeral in which Aria is to attend before her untimely death at the hands of her spreading cancer. As the two friends humorously plan the funeral, Aria is faced with an ongoing question that is repeated more than once as the film plays out,
“Do you want to die?”
The question is asked by none other than Aria’s sister, Lena, who promised to raise and protect Aria as their mother is currently not in the picture; she has been deported. In fact, the film opens with Aria being confronted by Lena, who urges Aria to return to chemotherapy and Aria refuses. We then follow Aria into her bedroom as she calls her best friend, Gemma, and lets her know of her sickness. We learn here that Aria’s sickness isn’t sudden, she has dealt with cancer before and won for the time being. However, this time, Aria has reached the conclusion that she will not survive a second time.
There is a bit of a time jump where Gemma has reached Aria’s bedroom and has already been asked by Aria to help her plan her funeral. During this scene I actually would have liked to have seen more development of how it was that Aria thought of the idea to plan her own funeral, or where she got the idea. Granted, she could have come up with the idea before the events of the film unfolded, but as a viewer it would have been nice to see that internal spiritual struggle of Aria deciding she is going to celebrate her death. After all, in Mexican culture, death is often times both celebrated and feared, and Aria’s decision in attending her own funeral, before her death, leans towards the more spiritual side of Mexico, the side that worships La Santa Muerte rather than rely on religion for a cure.
While we are in Aria’s bedroom, it becomes painfully tragic the situation in which Aria finds herself, despite the aesthetic of ceremony she attempts to drape over her fate. We see the hope that carried Aria ever since her first encounter with cancer. Through beautiful intakes of various items located in Aria’s bedroom we can spot an old-fashioned stereo, a book entitled How to Paint Like the Old Masters, a vinyl record player, a record of West-Side Story, as well as several other art books. These momentary shots are heartbreaking as it shows how Aria planned to live her life and how tragic it is for her to have her life interrupted. An entire life, full of music, culture and art, cut short. Maybe, within these glimpses of how she dreamed her life would be is the answer to my desire to know what inspired Aria to plan her own funeral and a lively one (literally) at that: Aria is too sick to not die young, but too young to die bored.
After this scene we transition over to Roxanne’s house (ok Candice, I see your cameo). Roxanne is introduced as the “popular, fun girl” whose sole role in the film is to ensure that Aria’s funeral is more lively. Now, keep Roxanne’s role in mind as it later presents the sole problem I have with the film, and it is a technical one at that. This scene, nonetheless, is one of the funnier sides to the film, with the humor being put on full display as Roxanne initially refuses to help Aria with her FUNeral, but don’t worry, she comes around,
“I’ll just be rotting away in a cell, wasting everyone’s taxes.” Oh.
“As I look into my sister’s eyes, thinking about my prohibition-era funeral.” Wow.
The following montage displays the three girls gathering people for the funeral and as we see the girls cheerfully pass out flyers, talk to a priest about using a church and select their funeral outfits, we also see the effects of cancer plague Aria, causing her to vomit more and more and in between the happier shots. Gemma sadly looks on but cannot help her friend; the only comfort she can give is to help plan the funeral. We also see Lena turn to prayer, demonstrating the different ways in which both sisters deal with the notion of death. Both are terrified, but their fears are alleviated through different measures.
Towards the end of the film, Aria and Gemma arrive to the church where Roxanne is already waiting inside with everyone else who attended. However, upon having discovered one of the flyers that the girls handed out earlier, Lena arrives and is furious that Aria went behind her back asking if this is all a “game” for Aria and once again asking,
“Do you want to die?”
The two sisters have an honest conversation in which Aria finally manages to explain to Lena the reasoning behind deciding to not go through with chemo, and the funeral,
“Talking about it, calling mom, going to therapy, all that bullshit is a reminder that one morning I won’t be waking up.”
Aria feels that with a 35% chance of chemotherapy working, she doesn’t want to try to control the odds. The funeral, the way she carries and ends her life, however, is something she can control. One of the restrictions Aria had for the funeral was that she was to be the only one wearing black, everyone else must arrive in white. With her explanation to Lena, we can come to understand that Aria wants to control the concept of “mourning.” She wants her friends to wear white as a reminder that life will continue without her, and her wearing black is a way to mourn herself, maybe, but in a way, to stare at death in its eyes and say “You are here. I am here too.” Aria manages to show Lena that ending her life on her terms is not what is selfish, but what is selfish is ultimately this futile and painful attempt to try and prolong her departure.
Lena agrees to let Aria have the funeral, on the condition that she calls her mother to explain her decision as the film ends. We only get a brief moment of hearing Aria talk to her mom and during this moment we get a montage of the people who were inside the church setting up for Aria’s arrival. Now, this is where that technicality with Roxanne comes into play.
Introduced as the “fun” and “popular” girl, Roxanne’s role was to gather a mass amount of people for the funeral. The difficulty of this is heightened when we consider the fact that this film takes place over the summer, as Gemma is doing a summer session for math. However, it is apparently pulled off and even the Mariachi that Aria wanted are stated to be in attendance. With this montage however, we see only a handful of guests with some not following the dress-code that symbolized much to Aria. This scene would be the film’s only flaw; what was built up for the duration of the time that we have been with these characters looks haphazardly underwhelming and would have been better had it not been included as it walks back on Aria’s intent. Essentially, the symbol that is supposed to be contrasting Lena’s fear is treated and shown with very little preparation and design. The saving grace for this whole scene is seeing for a few seconds that Gemma is taking it hard, party or not.
Filmed in 2018, one year after Disney’s Coco premiered in theaters and brought to light the colorful views Mexico has on the concept of death, La Chingona Films gave us a contemporary equivalent that speaks how one in our real world would confront the notion of treating death as a celebration rather than a mourning.
Superb debut from La Chingona Films. 4.25/5.