At the base of an active volcano in Guatemala, 17-year-old Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) harvests coffee beans with her family, while pining for Pepe (Marvin Coroy), a young worker on the plantation. When Maria is promised to the older foreman of the site, Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), in marriage, she latches on to Pepe’s idea of running away to America. Throwing herself into that decision, however, results in dire consequences for her and her family.
Writer-director Jayro Bustamante’s debut film takes a somewhat familiar narrative and sets it among a community that many of us will be wholly unfamiliar with – the Kaqchikel people, one of the indigenous Mayan groups found in Guatemala. Ample time is spent observing their customs and beliefs, while Bustamante shoots in a languid, observational style that fully immerses us in this world. But the Kaqchikel people in Ixcanul are still in servitude to the coffee plantation, working for Spanish-speaking foremen who often exploit them. So when Maria is set up for an arranged marriage with the respectable and prosperous Ignacio, it is as much to secure the safety of their family than anything else.
As Maria struggles to pull away from this path and dream of America, she ends up throwing everything around her into chaos, putting the futures of herself and her family into question. Newcomer Maria Mercedes Coroy plays the conflicted emotions of youth naturally and it’s heartbreaking to watch her face the harsh realities of adulthood before she should have to. Bustamante’s documentary feel blurs the line between fact and fiction, especially since he based the story on the similar plight of a real life girl also named Maria.
While the arc of the story and where it leads may not end up being much of a surprise, the tangibility of the environment and the real world complications of the people who reside within it make Ixcanul a transporting journey.