A daughter has returned to Spain. She’s a designer living in London, but her father died, and mom has run out of money. The daughter is also out of money and looks for a way to find some. She flirts with the idea of prostitution, but it doesn’t pan out. She lands a gig in New York, but the agency won’t pay for the plane ticket. Mom starts shoplifting food. A) Because she’s hungry. And B) Because she’s heard the food in prison is good.

Written, produced, directed, and starring Amalia Ulman, El Planeta is a series of vignettes stitched together to resemble something like real life. Ulman’s mother plays her mother in the movie, and their chemistry is disarming and delightful as they bundle and burrow into their unheated apartment. The mother, Maria, hasn’t been able to pay the bills for weeks now. So she sits in the kitchen eating fancy pastries given to her while listening to the news on the radio. Reports of Martin Scorsese’s impending arrival for an event dominate the headlines.

The daughter, Leo, is a little more restless. She goes around shopping, meets a guy named Amadeus (Zhou Chen), goes on a date with him, spends the night, breaks it off in the street, and goes shopping with Maria. 

But that’s just a list of what Leo does; what makes El Planeta work is how Ulman reveals bits of Leo’s character through these events. It gives the movie the impression of an overarching narrative, even if there isn’t much of one.

Instead, El Planeta is a beautiful study in character, behavior, and style. Shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Carlos Rigo on the streets of Gijón, El Planeta plays like a thoughtful homage to Vivre sa vie with touches of Grey Gardens and Working Girls, maybe even Frances Ha. 

The only real jarring moments in El Planeta come via a series of transitions, digital wipes used to stitch together scenes of Leo walking around Gijón. And these are not the typical horizontal wipes of Akira Kurosawa or the Star Wars movies, but the cheap star and box wipes of standard-issue editing software best reserved for your nephews’ fifth birthday party video. Why a movie so artful shot and edited would have such pedestrian transitions is odd.

But the rest of El Planeta is wonderful. The movie is appropriately paced, and a runtime of 79 minutes fits the material. Born in Argentina and raised in Spain, Ulman has made a name for herself as a performance and installation artist, and El Planeta is proof that she should court success in the cinematic realm as well.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

El Planeta (2021)
Written and directed by Amalia Ulman
Produced by Kathleen Heffernan, Kweku Mandela, Amalia Ulman
Starring: Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Zhou Chen, Nacho Vigalondo
Utopia Distribution, Not Rated, Running time 79 minutes, Opens Oct. 1, 2021, in select theaters and digitally on October 8.