One of the first films I remember making me cry, due to its cultivated content and not just its sniping of an innocent mama deer, is Barry Levinson’s Avalon. It’s a mediocre film with some solid period-specific costumes and sets, strong performances from a few cast members, and a middle-of-the-road plot about generations of a family arriving and surviving in the United States. What got 9-year-old me to tear up, though, is the ending, where (spoilers for a film from 1990) Armin Mueller-Stahl, the immigrant family’s patriarch, is reciting his well-worn anecdote about arriving in America — except he’s saying it to no one in his retirement home, as a disinterested grandson looks on. This man who was once so strong and vital, who infected his family’s lives with promise and love, has now been left a shattered shell, clearly succumbing to Alzheimer’s and patently ignored by his supposed loved ones. The fact is that Alzheimer’s is an excruciating disease: it doesn’t just rob people of their lives, eroding their thoughts and personalities, but it also does it while instilling a sense of fear that they can’t even trust their own minds. I watched it sadistically lock in a grandmother and grandfather of mine, slowly isolating them with confusion and terror, where the only hope you have is that wherever their mind is today is a pleasant place, if only for a moment or two. Ignacio Ferreras’ Wrinkles (originally released in Spain as Arrugas) is a heartbreaking animated journey with a group of elderly people as they are forced to confront the limitations of their age and the ever-present specter that they can’t even trust themselves anymore. There are a few missteps by the filmmakers, but mostly it’s an affecting film focusing on a group so often overlooked while using film techniques to simulate that foreboding sense of impending loss.
After a few too many episodes of confusion, Emilio (voiced by Martin Sheen) is admitted to an assisted living facility by his son. This once proud man is now rooming with Miguel (George Coe), an old rascal with no family who uses the general confusion of his fellow “inmates” to swindle a few dollars from them. Miguel takes Emilio under his wing and introduces him around, showing him the lay of the land before the two clash over Miguel’s suspected thievery. But as Emilio slowly realizes that he has Alzheimer’s (a fact he doesn’t always remember), Miguel tries to help his roommate avoid going up to the second floor where all the bad cases are sent. While trying to stop yet another friend from being conquered by the relentless ravages of time, Miguel finds himself feeling vulnerable and connecting with people in ways he never has before.
Wrinkles (based on the graphic novel by Paco Roca) could have easily been a dark dirge reflecting on the unjust way age and mortality wreaks havoc on all of us. Or it could have been a treacly Hallmark movie about how great life is, or some Bucket List knockoff about old coots getting up to hijinks in a retirement home. Instead, it’s a mix of all three, and thus a bit more like life and more rewarding for it. There are sweet moments and funny parts, but there is also a real sense of dread as Emilio’s condition worsens and he’s utterly unable to do anything to prevent it — occasionally even unable to realize it’s happening.
Director Ferreras makes a lot of intelligent choices with the film’s structure and shots to replicate some of Emilio’s mindset. Even though it’s animated, a lot of shots are often framed like handheld cameras, suddenly jerking in one direction or the next, as if trying to keep up with what should be the center of attention but constantly unsettled and playing catch up. Montage and quick assembly of passages of time that could just be narrative expedience turn out to also simulate that “unstuck in time” feeling of Emilio suddenly finding himself at Christmas when it was summer not long ago. There is also a powerful sequence where Emilio can’t understand a particular word that everyone is saying and soon grows terrified because he simply doesn’t know what is going on or why everything changed. All of these elements are combined to truly drive home Emilio’s experience in a powerful way that is at once novel and instantly relatable.
The animation itself is fairly well done, appearing like a mix between Paul Dini’s work for the DC Animated Universe, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper comics, and Mamoru Hosada’s films. It looks hand-drawn and is mostly realistic (mainly in sets and backdrops and the like) while retaining just enough of a cartoon edge to not make it enter a distracting rotoscope or uncanny valley area. There are some imaginative elements that could only be done with animation (or intrusive and terrible CGI in a live action film), but mostly it’s a restrained film that doesn’t use the more fantastical properties of the genre for its storytelling. It probably could have used a bit more outlandish touches, but it’s always nice to see animation used for things beyond childish programming or the unrealistic.
The film makes some slight missteps in its characterization, both by not delving enough into its two main characters and by having a fairly simplistic arc for one of them. There are slight glimpses and mentions of a life before they got old, but the film would have benefited from incorporating more from the past. As it stands, it makes them less rounded than they could be. And this is problematic for Miguel, as his arc goes from a rascal just trying to entertain himself to someone suddenly caring about his (rather sudden and shallow) friendship with Emilio. It’s not so cookie-cutter as growing a heart ten sizes too big and finally understanding the meaning of Christmas; there’s still plenty of gruffness and realism in his approach that it works. But the film would be much stronger had his backstory been explored more.
The special pieces of art that affect us tend to be ones that confront the ugly realities of life while finding the beautiful elements that make all of it worth a damn. Life can be cruel and we can find ourselves forgotten, or even forget ourselves, but there are still moments worth clinging to, worth experiencing, before that cloud comes to obscure the sun, possibly forever. It’s been said that young people don’t like interacting with the old because it’s a reminder of death, but maybe it’s just a reminder of how helpless we are to help those who have given us so much. In any case, it’s good that there is a film dealing with the hopes, fears, and daily struggles of an oft-overlooked group. And it’s even better when it’s a film with this much heart and integrity telling a different story with a unique voice. Maybe Wrinkles isn’t the type of film to make us cry, but it surely will leave a lasting and sincere impression.