What is the criteria for playing a character based on a factual person? How much artistic license is granted toward playing such a character in a fiction piece? Should an actor portray said character based on the knowledge or experience required for the role? Those are the ethical dilemmas at play in Victoria Linares Villegas’ sophomore feature Ramona. In the originally planned, COVID-thwarted fiction film, actor and casting director Camilla Santana plays the eponymous girl, a pregnant woman amidst the teen pregnancy epidemic in the Dominican Republic.

But the pandemic forced Villegas to make this preconceived idea into a documentary where the slightly older Santana interviews six tween / young-adult mothers to get an understanding of Ramona. She seeks the character’s authenticity by grasping their imaginations of how Ramona lives, her fashion style, physical appearance, body movement, and how she interacts with male bargoers. The consensus that Santana gathers is a collective origin story of how a girl becomes a woman and how they do not grow into adulthood the same way as their male counterparts. Then it blossoms into a character study of the lengths an artist takes to commit to the project and the sacrifices they make for art’s sake.

Villegas continues to admire the slate after its pivotal presence in her debut, It Runs in the Family. In Ramona the slate teleports the audience from a contrived artificial soundstage to vibrant, lively shoots that fill up the painted wall’s textures and connect with participants’ voluminous stories. It’s an organic shift where Villegas and Santana’s instincts dictate womanhood’s internal complexity. They are not interested in finding a solution to a known crisis. Instead they discover how cultural norms forced a specific life trajectory on Dominican women. Villegas also makes spellbinding use of repetitions, such as cutting each participant wearing the same uniform and Santana delivering the same line differently––”Momma drank all the time and I turned out fine”––to emphasize the multiple moods one has gone through during their adolescence, and that Ramona is not a monolith.

The onscreen role exchange between Santana and the researched ensemble in the third act derails Santana’s emotional arc, but it is the necessary transaction for the film to make. Santana dilutes herself behind the camera to spotlight the people who’ve similarly experienced Ramona’s life, which reflects her casting directorial background. But her emotional reflections on her performance are not captured explicitly when she slowly becomes an extra. Though this film is not about the performance; it’s about Villegas and Santana’s authorial decisions informing art. It unveils the politics of casting a movie and how its choices determine its fate and reception when handling it with care and due diligence. 

Ramona is an incisive, delicate canvas that ennobles sorority, motherhood, and leadership. Its precise cinematography amplifies interviewed background resources into the film’s skeleton and backbones. It contests traditional casting practices in favor of a collaborative, transformative act of solidarity. Santana acknowledges her limits as someone who has never carried a baby and gives back her role to Ramona’s lower-class community, the protagonist’s original background. 

Ramona had its North American premiere at True/False 2023 where Villegas received the festival’s True Vision Award.

Grade: B+

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