Set against the tense backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, Imanol Uribe's Carol's Journey is otherwise a fairly conventional coming-of-age story. An adolescent girl butterflies from tomboy to young lady. She experiences the joy of extended family and the blush of a first romance. In these regards the film almost works in a sweet, slight way. Unfortunately, the storytellers can't keep themselves from burdening their tale with enough tragedy for several movies. The result is something slightly undercooked and therefore not quite satisfying.
Adapted for the screen by Angel Garcia Roldan from her novel, Carol's Journey is the story of a 12-year-old American girl (Clara Lago) who travels with her mother Aurora (Maria Barranco) to visit her grandfather Amalio (Alvaro de Luna) in Spain. We might wonder why anyone would take a child into a country at war, but we quickly learn that Aurora is terminally ill and has returned home to die. This surprises us considerably since Aurora neither looks nor acts ill. We are never informed of what's ailing her, but she does proceed to expire expeditiously.
This leaves young Carol in pickle. Amalio owns a huge mansion in the Spanish countryside, but he lives at a bathhouse in town where he hangs out with a bunch of buddies, arguing politics, playing dominoes and smoking cigars. So Carol is dispatched to live with Aurora's jealous sister Dolores (Lucina Gil). This has the advantage that Carol really likes her cousin Blanca (Luna McGill). The disadvantage is that Aurora was once engaged to Dolores' husband, Adrian (Carmelo Gomez), now a Francisco Franco fascist.
Since neither father-stand-in nor mother-stand-in looks like someone likely to be sweet to our heroine, we steel ourselves for Cinderella-like meanness. Needlessly. The picture isn't headed there at all. After Carol and Blanca come home late one day and Dolores fusses at her niece, granddad Amalio moves home to provide Carol sanctuary. Meanwhile, Carol strikes up a cross-class relationship with an impoverished boy name Tomiche (Juan Jose Ballesta). First Tomiche steals her hat. Then she kicks him in the gonads. Properly introduced, they "bury the hatchet." Then they kiss and everything seems swell except for the fact that the country is at war and sneering fascists lurk in the corners of every frame in the film.
All of this is complicated by several factors. Carol's American father, Robert (Ben Temple), a commercial airline pilot in his civilian days, is now a fighter pilot with the Spanish Republican Army, shortly to be defeated by Franco's henchmen. Amalio is a devout Republican whose religious and political beliefs stand to put him in disfavor when Franco wins, despite the fact that he's a man of such mild demeanor that not even the fascists dislike him. And Tomiche's father was such a staunch Republican that the local fascists, led by Adrian's friend Alfonso (Alberto Jimenez), have already hauled him off in the middle of the night and murdered him.
Subsequently, local police officials have felt empowered to treat Tomiche like their personal punching bag. They routinely haul him into the police station and beat him up for the sin of being someone who cannot stop them from hauling him into the police station and beating him up just because they want to.
Eventually, Franco wins in the movie as he did in history and the movie's plot lurches forward in predictable ways. With no Republic to fight for, Robert takes up the life of the fugitive and reenters Carol's life in such a way as to endanger everybody she knows. Adrian seems to become the local boss, and Alfonso becomes the ally no one would ever want. Tragedy inevitably ensues.
This film works when it divorces itself from the politics it takes for granted rather than explores. Scenes with Carol making a way for herself with her cousins and with Tomiche and his friends ring true in every instance, and the young actors are thoroughly convincing. One can easily imagine a Travolta-like star potential in Ballesta, who exhibits a potent mixture of toughness and vulnerability. Spanish star Rosa Maria Sarda lends her charisma and charm to the story in the underwritten role of Aurora's teacher who becomes a mentor to Carol.
But eventually the politics asserts itself in a clumsy, central way. We haven't a clue why Robert is fighting for the Republic. (For that matter we don't know why he was in Spain 13 years earlier when Carol was conceived out of wedlock or how Aurora became involved with Robert while she was betrothed to Adrian.) We aren't given any insight into why an otherwise seemingly decent man like Adrian becomes enamored of the fascists or what his eventual fate might be at the hands of a sociopath like Alfonso. All we do know is that eventually innocent people die and that in psychological developments known only to motion pictures the survivors recover completely in an unseemly instant.