Sisterly documentary Elena is expressive to a fault

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A documentary by Petra Costa. Featuring Elena Andrade. In English and Portuguese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.

Documentary filmmaking and the art of narrative storytelling have never been more intertwined. People are hungry for information, and the paucity of fresh ideas in fiction is causing popcorn burnout. But what’s really amped up the doc world is the availability of formerly expensive postproduction techniques. The line between nonfiction and Chekhovian drama gets especially thin when docmakers tackle their own families. In the case of young Brazilian Petra Costa, who studied filmmaking in London and New York, an immaculately crafted study of her deceased older sister, Elena Andrade, turns out to be expressive to a fault.

The elder sibling’s sputtering acting career left much useful audio-visual material—screen tests, rehearsal clips, and taped letters home—to sort, dissect, and give the Instagram treatment. The younger aspirant, also a would-be actor, survived the failures of the first, so she gets the last word on what went down. Unfortunately, most of her words arrive in a breathy, monotonously inflected voice. (Imagine Mad Men’s January Jones with a very slight accent.) She tries to deflect the obvious limelight-hogging by putting her narration in the second tense, and pitching the whole thing at absent Elena. In practice, that means a lot of lines like “You looked for answers everywhere but just couldn’t find them.” The funereal piano music doesn’t help.

On their own, the images—like the principal subject(s)—are beautiful. And Costa eventually delves more deeply into her mother’s grief, and her own (the father hardly enters the picture), especially when the dialogue slips into everyday Portuguese, instead of overwritten English. Costa’s depiction of her own adolescent depression, growing up in a sisterless Manhattan, is harrowing, but the attempt to tack on some uplift at the end feels queasily forced. Sometimes the voices in your head are not the ones best suited to telling a story, whether fact or fiction.

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