Directed by Cath Gulick
Bolstered by an impactful score and stern black-and-white images, "The Fever and the Fret" is a low-budget art-house drama whose viewing can become utterly painful due to its heavy story. However, I found it completely engrossing as we keep crossing the thin line that separates the real from the surreal.
Cath Gulick’s debut feature centers on the Bronx dweller Eleanor Mendoza (Adelina Amosco), a depressive 14-year-old student of Asian descent with two large birthmarks on her face, who is a constant victim of bullying at school. Her grandmother (Shirley Cuyugan O'Brien), with whom she lives with, has to remind her every morning about going to school, a very difficult step to the teenager, who prefers to work at the restaurant of her cousin Alex (Rod Rodriquez) for three or four dollars an hour than have to confront her obnoxious colleagues. Is Alex who supports her, and the pressure of still being a virgin impels her to make a first sexual move in his direction.
This troubling reality is mistily expanded by the weird dreams that assault Eleanor whenever she gazes at her intriguing artistic paintings. Her grandmother frequently sees her work as a representation of the outer space. Contrasting with the rest of the film, these oneiric sequences are presented in color and always begin with two mountains placed next to each other with the sky filling the remaining spots of the frame.
The inclusion of gracious gestural movements opposes to the affliction of laboring alone, whereas the sight of a newborn evolves to the happiness of having a child in her arms. The power of the mind always brings pictorial tranquil landscapes where the water is abundant. In her dreams, she also enjoys the company of a look-alike, who exhibits identical strange birthmarks as she does. This fantastic Malickian complexity is exciting, mirroring some of Eleanor’s desires but also the lack of her self-esteem. They are the sad consequence of a lamentable emotional desolation that, persisting for years, is driving her dangerously close to madness.
After another incident with Carly (Vanessa Carmona), a spiteful girl who torments her at school, Eleanor is arrested under the charges of assault, truancy, possession of an illegal weapon, solicitation of sex, and threatening to burn the school down. No images confirm the accusations, and no images deny it, but this time around, not even her teacher and protector, Miss Gutierrez (Kathleen Changho), seems to be on her side. Everything gets as much blurred for us as for the miserably lonely Eleanor, who doesn’t remember anything that day and pushes her grandmother to an existential crisis.
Ms. Gulick, who aims well at both the traumatic extremity and the tricks of a disturbed mind, uses magnified close-ups to redouble the terrible sensation of pain her protagonist keeps enduring. Conversely, Carly is flawless in conveying falsehood and malice. In addition to some terrific urban shots, the director elegantly stages an absorbing court session that ends the film with a strong grip on reality. I suspect this dark, immersive, and disturbing exercise is just the beginning of a beautiful filmmaking career.