When we first meet Chela, the protagonist in Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature “The Heiresses“, she seems to have her life under control. She is lounging in her handsomely appointed home with her partner Chiquita, as they get ready to attend their friend Carmela’s 50th birthday party. Following this relaxed evening of music and socializing, however, their private conversations, reveal that everything isn’t quite as it seems.

As it turns out, Chela and Chiquita are hiding a secret. Simply put, they are broke. Chiquita is facing imprisonment for fraud and debt, leaving Chela to fend for herself for the first time in decades. Having accumulated inherited possessions of considerable value, Chela reluctantly agrees to sell them to make ends meet. Word of their strained financial situation begins to spread around their social circles, however. And now, Chela must swallow her pride, as a simple favor evolves into her providing a taxi service to those same peers from Paraguay’s upper class.

Cinema often tells us that such life crises spur characters into drastic action. Whether it’s a trip to “find yourself” or a personal reinvention, we expect the protagonist to undergo a major change. In the case of Chela, however, the upheaval is much more low key. Her new outlook is unassuming, with the liveliest part of the daily routine being her visits to the crowded, noisy prison where Chiquita now resides. Otherwise, she spends much of the film in uneventful car rides which don’t give much insight into her character’s thought process.

Favoring understated realism over a more transformative character arc, Chela is a passive character who can be hard to engage with. Though Ana Brun brings an admirable delicacy and poise to the role, the character feels lacking in introspection and agency. Even when a potential new companion enters her life, there’s little passion to suggest any genuine chemistry.

Indeed, the film may have you wishing Chela would somehow cross paths with Paulina Garcia’s Gloria (a similarly middle-aged Latin American woman from Sebastian Lelio’s 2012 film of the same name). Such a vibrant character would have brought some much-needed joie de vivre to the film. Instead, the film succeeds mostly in Martinessi’s direction. His shadowy visual aesthetic compensates for the narrative’s shortcomings by evoking an absorbing sense of melancholy. You could even venture to call “The Heiresses” a mood piece, albeit one which riffs a bit too long on one note.

“The Heiresses” opens in select theaters January 16.

GRADE: (★★½)