I found that ‘something special’ I was looking for, in a very different kind of road movie made in 2009. This one is a train trip (on top of the train) across Mexico and it is most certainly not a comedy. Quite the contrary. This is a disturbing and tragic tale of three teenagers caught up in the horrors generated by Mexican gang life.
As in The Lucky Ones, the three leads, Sayra, Casper and Smiley, are in a constant search for connection as they struggle to move forward with their lives. One presumes it is the sense of belonging and community that drew Casper and his young friend, Smiley, to the Mara gang in the first place. But gang life is a community that demands much of its members and some of it is very bad (membership requirements include being beaten and killing a member of a rival gang).
(Warning: slight spoilers in this paragraph) When the gang boss (Mago) accidentally kills Casper’s girlfriend while trying to rape her (sharing is another part of gang membership), Casper snaps. At the first opportunity, when Mago is threatening the life of Sayra, an innocent bystander, Casper kills Mago, knowing full well that his chances of surviving more than a few days are slim to none. Sayra, meanwhile, is trying to make an illegal trip with her father and uncle from Honduras to New Jersey, where the rest of her siblings are waiting. When Casper rescues her from Mago, she befriends him and they journey together. And Smiley? To remain in the gang, he volunteers to hunt Casper down and kill him.
Sin Nombre (‘nameless’), directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a dark, beautiful and utterly captivating film about how these three teenagers wrestle with the terror of what daily life can bring in many parts of Central America. The acting of Paulina Gaitan as the dour but kind Sayra is outstanding and Edgar Flores as Casper does a remarkable job at her side. The cinematography is gorgeous. I expected a lot of handheld ‘realism-inducing’ camera work, but was very pleasantly surprised. And the direction is amazing given that this is Fukunaga’s first film.
Sin Nombre has much to say about the themes of Mexican gang life and illegal immigration. In does so by offering a very humanizing and horrifying portrait of life just south of the “American Dream” in the context of an adventure film. This one gets ****. My mug is up. While the contents may be a little bitter, they are of the finest quality. If you can handle watching such a disturbing film, this one is not to be missed.