Still image from Midnight Family

Review: Midnight Family

This review is provided by Madeline Bogoch from our Open Call for Film Critics & Writers!

REVIEW: Midnight Family
dir. Luke Lorentzen
2019 | USA / Mexico | 90 mins | 14A

In Mexico City there are only 45 government-run ambulances serving a population of 9 million. This bleak ratio, which is presented at the outset of Luke Lorentzen’s sophomore feature, Midnight Family, has led to a supplementary private industry of for-profit paramedics who fill in the blanks of public service for a fee. The documentary closely follows the routines of the Ochoa family, who operate one such ambulance as a family enterprise. While the model of a for-profit paramedic elicits discomfort, Lorentzen presents a nuanced portrait of a family struggling to make their way within a fractured system and serving a civic need with care and compassion.

At the centre of the film is 17-year-old Juan Ochoa, who carries the responsibilities of both the business and the family due to his father Fer’s undisclosed chronic medical condition that leaves him constantly lethargic. One of the strongest elements of the film is the subtle but complex depiction of Juan as he seamlessly switches from appearing unapologetically young to performing adeptly as a first responder at the scene of various crises. In one moment, he is benignly chatting to his girlfriend, and the next he is administering paramedic care to critically injured patients while maintaining a sense of composure well beyond his years.

The flow of the film mimics the pace of the job. Plenty of indefinite downtimes in which the family idles, often stopping for snacks or waiting anxiously by their police scanner, is set against frenetic high-speed chases through the streets of Mexico City as they compete for work against the many other private ambulances. Through this structure there is a unique coupling of crisis and banality; in between the emergencies that provide the family livelihood, there are moments of domestic dynamics which reiterate that even though the services they provide are extraordinary, theirs is still a family business. Like any family-run business, the shop (in this case the ambulance) serves as the nexus for these dynamics. The majority of the film takes place within this immensely intimate space, playing the role of both a living room and an emergency room.

Aside from the aforementioned statistic that introduces the circumstances of the Ochoa’s livelihood, there is little exposition in Midnight Family. The film follows the family closely, but in doing so exposes a broader narrative of the socioeconomic conditions in Mexico City. Income, expenses, and survival are never far from focus. The Ochoa’s constantly convey their concerns about making ends meet. Between clientele who simply cannot afford the emergency services they provide, to corrupt law enforcement who shake them down for bribes, the family operates on desperately slim margins that only magnify the uncertainty of the film’s moral quagmire.

The uneasy reality of the family’s need to charge for their services and the inability of many to provide that payment is never reconciled, as it is part-and-parcel of the same fraught economic conditions the film inhabits. The inability to reconcile these competing needs is handled beautifully by Lorentzen who entrusts the viewer with these nuanced circumstances rather than offering explanatory conclusions. By neither romanticizing nor condemning the Ochoa’s work, the film manages to capture the struggling coexistence between capital needs and compassion in the business of crisis.

Interested in seeing this film? Reserve your tickets to Midnight Family here!