Writer-director Jim McKay has a way of making the everyday seem exceptional, of seeing the absorbing drama in what can sound like ordinary lives.
“En el Séptimo Día” (On the Seventh Day) is McKay’s first theatrical film in more than a decade, and it is gratifying to have his particular sensibility back on the big screen.
It’s not like McKay had been idle during the time away, he’s doing top-flight episodic TV, shows such as “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Americans.”
But what the director describes as “the fast-moving, ultra-efficient world of episodics” is very different than the non-professional actors and independent ethos that characterized his terrific earlier features — including the exceptional “Our Song” — an aesthetic McKay returns to here.
The story this time — involving a group of Mexican immigrants living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park and the Sunday soccer game that means the world to them — does not sound, as is often the case with McKay’s films, as compelling as it plays.
Before we know it, however — and before we can even figure out why it’s happening — we are emotionally caught up in the problems of protagonist Jose (Fernando Cardona) as much if not more so than the standard blockbuster superhero quest.
Working as a fast and reliable bicycle delivery guy for a restaurant, as well as the acknowledged mainstay of a soccer team poised to win a championship, Jose comes face to face with the starkest of dilemmas: “either we get slaughtered or I get fired.”
As we hang on the film’s plot twists, we also quietly absorb its points about the power of community and the purposeful determination of immigrants to create better lives for their families, not as special pleading but as something powerful and convincing.
As its Spanish/English title indicates, “Séptimo” is determinedly bilingual. Not only does the Spanish dialogue have English subtitles, the English has Spanish ones, and when the characters speak in the indigenous Mixtec language, both English and Spanish appear on the screen. The sense of language as both a uniter and divider is rarely so deftly conveyed.
That title does not refer to the amount of time the film covers — it’s actually nine days, not seven — but rather to the Genesis verse proclaiming that on the seventh day God “rested from all his work.” In 2016 Brooklyn, however, things are not quite that simple.
Jose is introduced on a Sunday morning going through his weekly rituals, which include a visit to church to feed the soul and preparing his body — via wrapping his ankles, carefully ironing a T-shirt and filling water bottles — for his weekly soccer game at Sunset Park.
As the T-shirt announces, Jose plays for a team representing the Mexican city of Puebla. Not only does he play for it, almost all of the nine members of the squad live in the same small apartment with him.
During the week, these men make the best of a cross-section of occupations, from working construction to hawking cotton candy to mopping the floors of a video peep show, sharing anecdotes about the promised land of Lower East Side coffee houses where the tips are huge. “Hipsters,” one man says of the free-spending clientele, and heads nod all around.
If Jose’s team didn’t have enough problems headed into the finals with the reliable Artemio (Genoel Ramírez) out with an injury, Steve (Christopher Gabriel Núñez), Jose’s boss at the La Frontera restaurant, tells him he has to work on Sunday.
“Important people are coming in,” he says. “I need all hands on deck.”
It’s easy to see why Steve wants Jose on board. He’s as gifted on a bike as Brady Jandreau, the star of Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” is on a horse, even when torrential rains mandate a transparent lime green poncho over his orange safety vest.
And with a pregnant wife wanting to join him in New York, and Steve’s long-delayed promises about a move to a position on the restaurant floor ringing in his ears, Jose really needs this job. But then again, the personal validation a soccer championship would provide is far from a small thing.
Non-professional Cardona, a performer with natural dignity and an ability to project concern, does fine work as Jose, and filmmaker McKay expertly conveys the sense of a polyglot neighborhood where multi-culturalism is lived, not theorized about.
Determined to manage the situation and hoping for the best even though he’s not sure exactly what that might be, Jose and his friends give face to the faceless, reminding us gently but firmly that they are people like us, no more and no less.
‘En el Séptimo Día’ (On the Seventh Day)
In Spanish, English and Mixtec, with English and Spanish subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills