There are no Q-tips in Geo Alva, Robi Arce and Michael Cavazos' digital epic Distancias, but there is a white supremacist YouTube personality named Q-Tipp. He's played by Arce, who wears a hideous mask that looks like something straight out of Neil Gaiman's nightmares and repeatedly sings, "Jesus was white/Jesus was white/Just like the Bible says." His slogan is "Do your research!"
Q-Tipp is a clue that Alva, Arce and Cavazos are up to something. Distancias may be an experimental film that searches for meaning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Q-Tipp is one of many hints that the project is partly a critique of such a search. When a monumentally deluded character tells you to do your research, you know it's time to stop thinking and start feeling.
Some audiences will see Distancias as a series of puzzle pieces waiting to be assembled, a mindset that is likely to leave them frustrated and furious. If, however, you accept the film as something to be experienced but not fully understood, you will find yourself lost in one of the most dreamily profound works of art to emerge from a Portland theater company during the past year.
Distancias starts with Alva smoking in a Honda. It's a beautifully simple beginning that tricks you into thinking you're about to witness an ordinary tale—an impression that is obliterated by the next scene, which features an army of magazine clippings that come to life and violently attack Cavazos, covering his body like bandages on a mummy.
The vignettes that follow are similarly strange. Arce shows up as a fanatically perky exercise coach who attempts to motivate his students by declaring, "The couch is lava!" The vile Q-Tipp unleashes a racist tirade, claiming that a video of two boys playing by a stream is footage of an illegal border crossing. Alva, Arce and Cavazos interrupt the film with seemingly out-of-place video chats, during which they discuss the pandemic and offer insights into Distancias.
While most of the film is designed to eject viewers from their comfort zone, the chats are packed with cozy platitudes. "What a time to reflect, during the pandemic," Arce says. True enough, but the statement is so simplistic you wonder if Arce believes what he's saying or if he's using empty therapy-speak to prove a point.
At its worst, reflection is a hollow act. Revelations come, go and get contradicted on a daily basis—they don't stick to us the way emotions do. When Arce offers his take on life in quarantine ("Oh my God, this is, like, I'm doing the biggest sacrifice!"), you snicker. When Arce weeps in a bathtub, you weep with him. His outburst hits you harder than a thousand insights.
It isn't an accident that Distancias is both didactic and visceral—it's the point. The blandness of the video chats heightens your appreciation of the film's more visceral scenes, like Alva's brutal battle with a skateboard in a parking garage. After watching him execute a series of nifty tricks, then repeatedly tumble onto concrete, you feel both heartened by his persistence and haunted by his pain. The scene is a perfect representation of life during COVID—an endless loop in which each small success is inevitably followed by a blast of anguish.
Despite being steeped in sadness, Distancias leaves you feeling anything but melancholy. With each strange new image, Alva, Arce and Cavazos' creation seems to shout, "This is our vision! Take it or leave it!" If they were worried that Distancias would leave viewers baffled instead of enthralled, it doesn't show. The production vibrates with the ecstatic faith of three geniuses who are confident that audiences will rise to their level of brilliance.
Distancias is a collaboration between Hand2Mouth and Moriviví, a new Latinx theater company whose founders include Alva, Arce and Cavazos, who are also Hand2Mouth company members. It's hard to imagine how the two organizations could top this film, but it is clear that its creators are a formidable artistic force. Their risk is our reward.
SEE IT: Distancias streams at hand2mouththeatre.org/distancias though April 30. $1-$25.