You don’t get more enigmatic than the opening of the Spanish neo-noir “Magical Girl.” An unnamed teacher brings a student, Bárbara, to the front of the class, interrogating her about passing a note. The conversation is fairly normal, but it alternates between two shots that, visually, don’t relate. Director Carlos Vermut makes sure you notice this, too. He lingers on its weirdness to the point of overstating it.
Over-focusing on the oddness of his world is his biggest flaw. The first half of the movie is effortlessly strange: A jewelry salesman stares down ruthless father Luis (Luis Bermejo) for 30 seconds too long, the unstable Bárbara (Marina Andruix) breaks a mirror with her forehead and walks around with the bleeding wound for the rest of the movie, and Luis and Bárbara’s conversation is interrupted by an off-screen whirring. On their own, each moment lands. Vermut just can’t help but focus on them. He needs to know that his viewer understands how bizarre the tone of his story is.
But focusing on the peculiar too much makes it normal, and that almost happens here. Though, thanks to some deft storytelling and a wicked early-movie turn, “Magical Girl” falls into a rhythm all its own. All Vermut needed to do was relax and let his story play. Maybe play is the wrong word. It’s not a playful story, after all.
Luis’ leukemia-stricken daughter Alicia (Lucía Pollán) loves anime, especially one called Magical Girl. She nicknames herself after her favorite character, Yukiko, and wants Yukiko’s special dress. It’s 7,000 euros, a price her unemployed father can’t afford. He decides to rob a jewelry store, but before he breaks the display window, Bárbara vomits on him from the building’s second floor. In a moment of weakness, she runs down and invites him in, and the two have sex. The night passes and Luis calls her, saying he recorded the whole thing and wants 7,000 euros from her to keep quiet. She agrees and takes up an illicit job to pay him off.
What that job is, though, is unclear. A safe word is involved, so it’s likely some kind of prostitution, but that’s beside the point. Bárbara is forced by Luis to sacrifice her body, and Luis justifies it as necessary to make his daughter happy. What he doesn’t know, despite being told by a sympathetic friend, is that Alicia needed just him, not the dress. In his pursuit of the dress, he wrongs two women, beginning a cycle of injustice that, as cycles do, wraps back around to him.
By the climax, Vermut threatens to overstate this point, too, but he gets engrossed in his story instead and lets it breathe. “Magical Girl,” in this last half, sheds its insecurity. It’s a steely-eyed exercise in resolve with enough surprising intimacy to hurt like a Yorgos Lanthimos-Wes Anderson love child. When it’s not forcing that, it becomes what it wants to be: a great movie.