The best films in LAFF's narrative competition all take place in the desert or on the road, sometimes both. Dominga Sotomayor's Thursday Till Sunday, for instance, concerns a family of four on what may well be their last road trip together. Sotomayor handles the proceedings of her debut with quiet panache; the way she delves into filial dynamics is as evocative as it is understated. As with a minutes-long opening shot bathed in the soft blue light of early morning, however, it's the visuals that first grab (and hold) one's attention: Nearly every shot is expertly (and strikingly) framed by cinematographer Barbara Álvarez without being distracting or ornate. There's a fluidity between what's on-screen and what we know is on the characters' minds, which makes a number of otherwise placid scenes surprisingly tense. Much of the film takes place inside the car, yet objects move in and out of the frame with such simultaneous grace and naturalism that it's difficult to imagine them being shot in any other way.

None of which would matter if the story weren't gripping in its own right. Seen mainly through the eyes of Lucia (Santi Ahumada), whose parents' relationship is crumbling on this weekend drive through Chile, Thursday Till Sunday is the rare road movie whose most fascinating attractions aren't of the roadside variety. With the deceptive simplicity of its plot comes intimacy, understated drama and even unsettling allusions to regional folklore.

The purpose of the trip is ostensibly to find a piece of land once belonging to Lucia's grandfather, but really it's a solemn last hurrah for the family unit. Sotomayor's directorial approach is subtle, even gestural; she's less interested in drawing a map to a specific end point than in pointing toward the sights and sounds of Lucia's growing realization that her family — and, with it, all their lives — are changing. For this girl to come of age, her parents have to come apart. Sotomayor is sympathetic to her characters, even as she maintains a certain distance from them.

Akin to Sideways in miniature, writer-director-star Alex Karpovsky's Red Flag is another road movie, not to mention strangely meta. Playing a fictionalized version of himself, Karpovsky (known for his work in Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture and Girls) at one point explicates the theme of his second feature, Woodpecker, in order to key us in to what this one is about. The self-reference is somewhat incidental, however, as Red Flag ultimately is about second chances — or the lack thereof — and haphazard love and friendship. It's also the funniest film in the competition, by far.

Not as ha-ha funny but always alluringly strange, Arturo Pons' The Compass Is Carried by the Dead Man tells the story of a young boy who gets lost while crossing the Mexico–United States border. A fascinatingly oddball foray into the surreal, the sun-dappled film throws us one oddity after another: a wagon driven by a dead man, children playing soccer with an army helmet, an unexpected funeral procession of mourning women. Its title doesn't appear on-screen for a full 30 minutes, but by that time it has already announced itself in other, more compelling ways — think of it as a bizarre descendant of Stagecoach.

Dead Man's Burden, meanwhile, is far more classical in its approach. First-time director Jared Moshé (an experienced indie-film producer) reveres the genre conventions of the Western (sweeping vistas, shifting loyalties and moral relativism abound) but, despite frequent gunslinging, he's ultimately more concerned with blood ties than bloodshed — or, rather, the commingling of the two. “There's always a better deal,” one unsavory character says of the land dispute between two estranged siblings at the center of the film, but neither he nor anyone else has calculated the nonmonetary cost of their dealings. This is a capital-W Western, made better by its sincerity.

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