Watching people simply go about their business can somehow be one of the most fascinating things in the movies. The Berlin Award–winning Ixcanul (Volcano), Guatemala's entry for last year's Oscars, is an absorbing, unpretentious look at a culture not often shown, whether capturing how the characters can carry a forest's worth of firewood on their heads without missing a step, or witnessing them getting their pigs drunk on rum in hopes of speeding up the mating season. By the time someone nonchalantly remarks on the unpleasant smell of their snake repellant, the sense of transportation is complete.
The first film made in the Kaqchikel Mayan language, writer-director Jayro Bustamante's feature debut follows a teenage coffee-bean harvester (Maria Mercedes Coroy) facing a number of coming-of-age crises, including a reduced crop, the off-and-on attentions of a handsome and wholly irresponsible fellow villager, and, most notably, the looming specter of an arranged marriage to her impoverished family's landlord. (Also, yes, that previously mentioned need for snake repellant.) A supporting character's wistful talk about the prosperity and progressiveness of America would likely always sting, but after these past few weeks, I mean, come on.
Extended sequences of everyday life aside, Ixcanul definitely isn't a documentary, and the plot does take a third-act turn that could easily be melodramatic in the wrong hands. Fortunately, Bustamante never lets the story mechanics overwhelm the basic minute-to-minute reality of his subjects, resulting in a film that's earthy and unsentimental and riveting throughout. Even when the main character gets frisky with a tree while preparing for her first time, it feels... Okay, that part is a bit weird. But it's an organic weird.