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In Steamy Panama, a Sister & Sister Come of Age

Ariana Chaves Gavilán and Cala Rossel Campos in Sister & Sister. Photo: Ceibita Films.

Making its world debut this weekend at SXSW Film Festival, Sister & Sister (Las hijas) offers a tender, comic, insightful, and delicately presented coming-of-age tale set in a steamy Panama summer. The first feature from director and writer Kattia G. Zúñiga, this small-scope film explores the tensions of adolescence with convincing performances from its leads, Ariana Chaves Gavilán and Cala Rossel Campos, as two sisters whose love and companionship are tested by a series of trials, from the trivial to the traumatic.

Zúñiga, a Panamanian-Costa Rican former dancer, physical therapist, and actor who has previously starred in two films and written and directed the short films It’s Cecilia (2012) and Things That Don’t Break (2017), looks to her own past here for a gentle, semi-autobiographical story that rides a wave of extraordinary Central American cinema (including Dos Estaciones, La Civil, Martinez, Sansón & Me, and others) making its way abroad in the international festival circuit. They may be from different countries and regions, but these films share an inventive sense of storytelling, one willing to break genre boundaries, and a keen visual eye; among them, perhaps, the next generation of Iñárritus, Cuaróns, and del Toros might break out.

Sister & Sister is set during a summer vacation as 17-year-old Marina (Chaves Gavilán) and her 14-year-old sister Luna (Rossel Campos) travel on their own from their current home in Costa Rica to their native Panama, where they will stay with relatives and hope for a visit with their long-absent father. The two are, to the benefit of the film’s simmering conflicts, a sharply drawn study in contrasts. Marina, the older of the two, is blond, slim, and broad-shouldered, her piercing blue eyes and athletic gait matched by a quick wit that borders on snark and an intolerance for what doesn’t go her way. Luna, her short black hair cropped above the ears, is more introverted and introspective: less athletic, lacking confidence, she’s interested in journaling and yoga. Her brown eyes, softer features, and rounder curves make for a stark contrast with her older sister.

Laura (left) and Marina (right) look through a ticket window, each girl's face framed in a separate box.
Ariana Chaves Gavilán (Luna), left, and Cala Rossel Campos (Marina), right, in Sister & Sister. Photo: Ceibita Films.

Once in Panama and staying with cousins, the two find themselves among a new set of friends and acquaintances, sharing a small room in a crowded house where privacy is scant and activity hectic. Marina is a bit of a boy magnet, an attention she enjoys reciprocating. The younger, less experienced Luna won’t experiment with drugs or alcohol, making fitting in for the already-socially-anxious little sister something of a challenge. Worse, she suffers the frequent slings and arrows of her big sister’s casual barbs. They’re small and slight but sting none the worse, and cumulatively, their impact grows. Like many a younger sister, Laura pines for just a little affection or recognition; Marina, though, hasn’t it in her.

Sister & Sister isn’t a film with a single obvious narrative conflict demanding to be solved by the third act. Nor does it put either of the two protagonists on a singular quest to be fulfilled. Rather, the events loll around with all the languid pleasure of a sunny summer afternoon. The teens spend their time knocking about in their cousins’ house, exploring the area, and hanging out with a group of local skateboarders—one of whom attracts both girls’ romantic attention, albeit in different ways. To put it bluntly, Luna is smitten by a chaste peck on the cheek, while her older sister Marina wants an orgasm. (Without divulging any major spoilers, I’ll note that the film is explicit in its discussion and depiction of teen drug use and sexual activity.)

A group of teens hang out on the limbs of a tree.
Photo: Ceibita Films.

That the two sisters are in so many ways so different drives the narrative. A border guard can’t help but observe that the two look nothing alike, and a cousin even wonders if Luna and Marina can both possibly be children of the same parents. The question of paternity is dropped, but it lingers on every time conflict between the two raises its head. Meanwhile, their father, promising a visit, remains mostly unseen, as one excuse after another prevents him from visiting. And when he does, he brings along a surprise neither girl is prepared to see.

Their fathers’ ultimate visit and the girls’ eventual return home concludes the narrative, but Sister & Sister is more about the quiet moments in two teen girls’ maturation than anything else. As different as they are, as frustrating as either can be to the other, Marina and Luna are still sisters who share a sibling bond if not personality traits or physical resemblance. Their portrayers—both having been recast due to the pandemic’s delay aging the original choices out of their roles—are excellent in their roles, depicting the contrasts that divide them while still establishing a sibling bond between them.

Luna (far right) and Marina (second from right) ride in the back seat of a car with two friends.
Photo: Ceibita Films.

Director-writer Zúñiga was, according to the film’s press notes, the younger sibling, and she and her older sister once took a summer trip very similar to Luna and Marina’s. Yet the script does not get lost in trying to recapture or document an exact moment in time. Rather, it aims for a colorful depiction of teen life in the urban tropics, set at a moment where sisters can grow apart, or, perhaps, together. The Panamanian-Chilean co-production, impressively shot by Alejo Crisóstomo and edited by Andrea Chignoli, makes for a delightful debut feature by Zúñiga and an excellent coming-of-age story charting two siblings’ very different characters.

Sister & Sister (Las hijas), the debut feature by Panamanian-Costa Rican writer-director Kattia G. Zúñiga, premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.  Panama/Chile, 2023. 80 min. In Spanish with English subtitles. Not rated.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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