Lullaby (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Alauda Ruiz de Azúa, Spain, 2022, 104 mins

Cast: Laia Costa, Susi Sánchez, Ramón Barea

Review by Ben Thomas

Lullaby, the debut feature from director Alauda Ruiz de Azúa, is a Spanish family drama about motherhood and responsibility: how we take up our roles and repeatedly fail at them, not out of malice or spite but because of our frailty and imperfection.

The film doesn’t shy away from complex subject matter and should be commended for that. However, in attempting to tackle several different interspersing themes, the film ultimately struggles to address each with enough clarity to be completely satisfactory viewing.

Lullaby, part of the Audience Award competition at the Glasgow Film Festival, has already received high praise on the festival circuit. It almost swept the board at the 2022 Málaga Festival, most notably winning Best Film, Best Actress (for Laia Costa and Susi Sánchez) and Best Screenplay, as well as winning Best New Director, Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the 2023 Goya awards. The film has also come highly recommended by Spanish filmmaking giant Pedro Almodóvar.

The film follows Amaia (Laia Costa), a 35-year-old new mother engulfed in the early stages of parenting. Her situation is compounded when her husband travels away to work in Valencia for three weeks, leaving her to care for the baby on her own. Amaia, exhausted by breastfeeding, no sleep and work considerations, decides to move back in with her parents Begoña (Susi Sánchez) and Koldo (Ramón Barea) who will help with the baby. Amaia realises, shortly after arriving, that raising the baby will not be her only worry. She will also reckon with her parents’ relationship, her own relationship and childhood.

In general, Lullaby is an impressive debut feature. The film has a solid combination of cinematography and performance, though not groundbreaking on either front. Cinematographer Jon D. Domínguez does well to capture the variations between the frantic pace of early parenting, the frustrations of family life and the serenity of the rural settings. There are some beautiful late night and early morning shots that demonstrate some of the natural landscape, while the muted browns, yellows, greens and pale blues add to the feeling that Amaia has travelled back in time.

Laia Costa, as Amaia, provides enough range, from stress to strength, to carry the story forwards. The relationship between Amaia and her mother Begoña is the heart of the film. In some ways, they are both difficult to get along with—they have friction from the start of the film as Begoña imposes her will and Amaia speaks her mind in return. But what unfolds is something tender and human. Begoña, for all her abrasiveness, loves Amaia deeply. She is the one who tells her not to worry, who tells her when dinner is, who tells her that she isn’t the first and she won’t be the last to go through this. She is the person to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the right thing at the right time, depending on the day. She comments on Amaia’s hair, her weight and her career—she’s an imperfect mother.

While this central relationship drives the film, other elements of Lullaby’s story are jumpy, preventing the film from settling into an effective rhythm. On one level, this makes sense—Amaia has a newborn baby, she is constantly interrupted, her life is in natural upheaval. Yet, the choppiness isn’t particularly within scenes, but between them. Within scenes, the film has its desired effect, creating disruption and distorting time—blurring moments and mirroring the haziness of Amaia’s lack of sleep. But between scenes, there is a sense that clauses are being opened and not closed. Seemingly important interactions take place that fizzle into irrelevance over time, while apparently revelatory information submerges as quickly as it emerges.

At the same time, the film remains relatively distant. The emotional beats don’t quite land as intended. In the spirit of realism, the family isn’t always the most likeable—the film is at times a cacophony of bickering and arguing. Though this isn’t a fatal issue, it does impact the parts of the story when the family are mining the past together. A scene where the family is watching a home video of Amaia as a baby provides an enjoyable bonding moment, but it still lacks a deep emotionality. The video is interrupted by a snarky comment here and there. A more effective sense of nostalgia might have been achieved with greater space and trust in silent connections.

Overall, Lullaby is a notable debut feature that depicts an important and difficult stage in human life. There are moments throughout the film that are well-crafted, and the performances remain strong despite complicated roles that require the actors to accomplish a variety of different feelings. Improvements can be made regarding thematic and tonal consistency. There are moments throughout that are oddly staged—pots thrown on the floor, arguments about separating, interactions with old flames—which can be jarring for the viewer. The structure of the film leans into realism, particularly with its subject matter, but the performances can creep into theatricality.