There's a beautifully revealed detail early in Aarón Fernández's The Empty Hours. It comes soon after the film's protagonist, 17-year-old Sebastián (Kristyan Ferrer), arrives in Veracruz, Mexico, to look after his uncle Gerry's motel for a few weeks. Gerry (Fermín Martínez), who has to leave town for a series of medical tests, gives Sebastián a tour of the premises, shows him where he keeps the cleaning supplies, takes him into one of the rooms, and explains an essential part of the cleaning process: There must always be a box of paper tissues next to the bed. After they leave, Sebastián's uncle imparts a final piece of wisdom: "The most important thing in this business is discretion."
Gerry's motel, just to be absolutely clear, is the kind that hosts brief, spirited dalliances, not family vacations. Located off a lonesome freeway, far enough from the town to maintain valued secrecy but close enough to accommodate spontaneous late-night visits, it looks, despite Gerry's intentions of sprucing it up, like a property two steps from abandonment.
The motel's slightly dilapidated look and far-flung locale lend the film a good deal of its atmosphere. Save a few brief visits to the nearby town, The Empty Hours takes place largely in sparsely populated areas like Sebastián's motel, where time, as the film's title suggests, seems to move slower and the mind has little left to do but wander.
During the day, when Sebastián handles guests, business is slow, if not completely dead, meaning that Sebastián is largely left to wile the day away in the reception office. Daily life is similarly uneventful for Miranda (Adriana Paz), a real estate agent who is having trouble selling an uninviting set of condos. She spends her days waiting for potential buyers to phone. Her only moments of excitement come when she meets her married lover at Sebastián's motel, and even these encounters are saddled with a requisite spell of boredom, as she must often wait over an hour for him to arrive. It's during these waits that she and Sebastián share some idle conversation and that he develops a crush on her.
Given the lives of its characters, it'll come as little surprise that The Empty Hours unfolds slowly. Early on, that decision doesn't feel like an artistic pretense but rather like an introduction to a new pace of life, one attuned to Sebastián's experience of idle time interrupted only by the quick exchange of money for keys when a customer arrives.
A life cannot be reduced solely to its rhythm, though, and eventually you begin to wonder what these series of standstill moments represent. Watching Sebastián and Miranda's relationship unfold raises questions about how their brief meeting might shift both their lives. You don't worry for Sebastián, whose assured, winsome smile suggests an internal confidence that will eventually completely push out the last vestiges of his youthful insecurities. Miranda elicits more sympathy and worry, particularly because she never convinces us with her attempts to own the unattached life she leads.
For the most part, however, The Empty Hours seems a bit too concerned with mood at the expense of story and character. The film's soundtrack recalls that of an Alexander Payne movie, and Fernández's seeming intention is to reach for the same kind of modest insight into life, love and aging that Payne often does. But a superfluous subplot featuring a young boy who steals coconuts off Sebastián's property and sells them on the side of the road only emphasizes the aimlessness of the plot and the need for a more coherent superstructure. Fernández spotlights the fleeting intersection of two characters' lives, but we're left reaching and searching for the takeaway — emotional, thematic or otherwise.
The ultimate test, in the end, is whether you believe that The Empty Hours offers a glimpse into a meaningful transitional moment for Sebastián and Miranda. The evidence is less than convincing. Instead, what we witness seems like a prophetic encapsulation of each character's future, forever to be defined more by idle hours than by thrilling ones. Such is life, for many and maybe most of us, but that insight feels too slight here — it comes off less like a revelation than a worn-out idea that the film falls back on.