by Nina Slesinger
The most common refrain in David Trueba’s Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed is “Help!” It’s a vague plea, shouted into the void to no one in particular, a desperate yell disguised as a quote from the eponymous Beatles song. Or, as the three main characters in this excellent, Goya Award-winning film find, it can be a relief-granting admission of both what you need and what you offer.
Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul
Director: David Trueba
Producer: Cristina Huete
Writer: David Trueba
Cinematographer: Daniel Vilar
Editor: Marta Velasco
Music: Pat Metheny
Cast: Javier Cámara, Natalia de Molina, Francesc Colomer, Ramon Fontserè, Rogelio Fernández, Jorge Sanz, Ariadna Gil, Violeta Rodríguez, Léo Rodríguez
Premiere: September 23, 2013 – San Sebastián Film Festival
US Distributor: Outsider Pictures
At the center of the film is Antonio (Javier Cámara), an English teacher and Beatles fanatic who accurately describes himself as “all heart and lonelier than an old fart.” He’s taking a road trip to Almería, a tiny coastal town in Spain where John Lennon is filming How I Won the War. Antonio harbors fantastic dreams of meeting his idol and asking him to include lyrics in the liner notes of future Beatles albums, so that translations are easier for non-English fans.
Chugging along in his small green car, Antonio meets two hitchhikers. There’s Belén (Natalia de Molina), a beautiful, insecure young woman hiding an unwanted pregnancy; and Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), a mop-topped sixteen-year-old taking temporary leave from his stern father. Neither hitchhiker knows exactly where he or she wants to go, and so both join Antonio’s support group, helping him stalk Lennon’s film crew and keeping his spirits up when the goal seems increasingly unlikely. In return, Antonio lives up to his schoolteacher title and dispenses small lessons in optimism to his hitchhiking pupils. For Juanjo, that’s setting an example of having pride in oneself in the face of oppression; for Belén, it’s the quiet permission to choose her own path.
In the Javier Marías novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a crew of Mexicans orbit the celebrity, relishing in the authority they have simply by standing near him. In Trueba’s film, though, Lennon’s celebrity functions as the opposite of power. In the opening scene, Antonio teaches his young students the lyrics to “Help!” and then explains that what Lennon needs help with is fame. It’s the attention that’s bringing him down—if he only had less power, less influence, he could feel like himself again. The three protagonists relate. Only when they run from the pressures that suffocate them, be it involuntary isolation, shaming nuns, or an angry father, can they get their feet back on the ground.
If all of this sounds like a saccharine fable, remember that the Beatle in the spotlight here is John, not Paul. While Living Is Easy is indeed irrepressibly optimistic, it also keeps a firm eye on several harsh truths. Antonio adores Lennon, but mostly because the singer’s lyrics offer him an inspirational outlet and ally in his lonely life. Belén has a face worth drawing (which Juanjo does) but has lived enough in her young life to hold a serious mistrust of men, especially men who claim to love her, and sees no opportunity in her future. Juanjo, the most innocent of the trio, is still a teenager growing up in Franco’s Madrid. Chugging along in his tiny green car, Antonio notes with disgust that at the last Beatles show in Spain, VIPs sat up front while police bashed heads outside the venue. Juanjo responds that his father is a cop.
Trueba’s funny script and beautiful setting create a lovely tone, and the three leads bring charming chemistry. Cámara in particular is fantastic as Antonio; he avoids treading the Movie Teacher stereotype even when he’s rattling off platitudes and poems. Cámara plays the man as sensitive and smart, but adds a crucial dose of naiveté. As Belén and Juanjo, Colomer and de Molina are sweet but cautious, a representation of young people that feels more relatable than that of the pervasive precocious teen.
Trueba has made a rare thing: a funny, uplifting film with emotional restraint. None of the characters in the film gain our sympathy from being pathetic, but rather from being persistent despite everything. They’re funny without resorting to irony, and lift each other up repeatedly, knowing that one way to persevere is to find people to live for. Even if that someone is John Lennon, and even if that someone is yourself.