Little sis goes looking for star-struck big sis

Review by Richard Ades – Columbus Free Press – 6/16/2014

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This seems to be the week for small films that begin stronger than they end.

Elena, an autobiographical documentary directed by Petra Costa, starts by enveloping us in a collage of narration and impressionistic images. We’re told that Petra, a young Brazilian, has set off for New York in hopes of finding her older sister, Elena Andrade.

Home-movie footage and tape recordings help to fill in a portrait of Elena, a beautiful woman who was drawn to the performing arts—as her mother had been before giving it all up to start a family. Elena achieved some success acting and dancing in avant-garde theater in Sao Paulo, but it wasn’t enough for her. So, years ago, she left to seek movie stardom in the Big Apple.

Then, after sending home occasional tape recordings detailing her attempts to become noticed, Elena abruptly dropped out of sight. What happened to her?

To the extent that the film addresses that question, it’s compelling. Eventually, though, we learn that Petra already knows full well what happened to her big sister. From this point on, the film’s focus switches to Petra herself and the question of whether she’ll follow in Elena’s unhappy footsteps.

This appears to be a real possibility, as Petra has inherited her sister’s interest in the cinema. Indeed, Elena seemed to be grooming her for such a future when they were growing up, giving the little girl starring roles in their home movies.

Still, the switch in focus from Elena to Petra makes the film seem more like a personal journal than a work of art. The beautiful, impressionistic images continue, but they begin to seem self-serving and even self-indulgent.

Though it begins promisingly, and though it runs only 80 minutes, Elena finally overstays its welcome.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

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