Metacritic (8/10), Letterboxd (4/5), Imdb.com (8/10), TMDB.com (4/5)

The everyday lives of average individuals ordinarily might not make for especially engaging storytelling. However, when they’re framed within the context of extraordinary circumstances, they take on an added new dimension, as witnessed in the second offering from Mexican writer-director Lila Avilés. This warm, heartfelt, bittersweet comedy-drama tells the endearing story of a family hosting a birthday party for Tona, a young, beloved painter battling advanced cancer (Mateo Garcia Elizondo), told largely through the perspective of his seven-year-old daughter, Sol (Naíma Sentíes), who hopes against hope for her father’s recovery. As events play out, viewers watch as Tona’s family makes preparations for the celebration – often involving simple tasks told with delightfully funny twists that provide much-needed comic relief – as well as the various means with which his relatives are dealing (or not dealing) with an apparently impending inevitability that no one really wants to address or discuss. Yet what might seem destined to be an exercise in forced festivities with an underlying sense of morbidity turns out to be a loving, earnest celebration of life, despite the undeniable presence of an unwanted, intangible “guest” lingering in the background. While the film incorporates a few sequences that are inherently a little too incidental in nature compared to the larger overall narrative, “Tótem” nevertheless serves up a charming, touching, authentically presented tale that reaches out to audiences and surrounds them with sincere, loving feelings and a big, well-earned hug. This National Board of Review winner and Independent Spirit Award nominee is a fine, little-known indie gem that will surely move you, even if it leaves you with uncomfortably mixed feelings as its story unfolds. It effectively illustrates that there indeed can be times of boundless, overwhelming joy even in the face of overwhelming lament but that what ultimately matters most is what we make of these circumstances when they play out, especially when it comes to expressing how we feel for those whom we truly care about most.