Sin Nombre is the first feature film from the New York based filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga, a man of Japanese and Swedish ancestry but who is not making a Spanish language film about the issues facing Latin America. The film’s production is similarly a melting pot, with financing coming from both the United States and Mexico, even if the characters hail from Honduras, and a glance at the crew list reveals list of names that are half Latino and half Anglo-Saxon. Descriptions of the film since it debuted at Sundance have been a bit confusing; some of what I heard made it sound like a movie about immigration while others made it sound like a film about Latin American gangs. In truth, the film is about both of these things and a little more, and the two issues tend to collide in interesting ways.
The film begins by telling two seemingly separate stories. The fist is of a boy who is dubbed “Smiley” (Kristyan Ferrer) after he is initiated into a gang in the opening scenes by a pair of older gang members named El Casper (Edgar Flores) and Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). El Casper seems like an older version of “Smiley,” he’s a criminal by necessity and while he likes the lifestyle he tends to avoid some of the excesses of it. Lil’ Mago on the other hand is an out of control psychopath covered head to foot with menacing tattoos. Meanwhile, we witness a parallel story of a girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) who has embarked on a journey to America with her father and uncle. She plans to illegally cross the border and meet up with family in New Jersey to give herself a new life. Along their journey the family begins to ride on top of trains, and it’s on top of one of these trains that the two stories are going to collide and remain linked for the rest of the film.
That the film has an unconventional sense of perspective is something that sets it apart from the average indie. The movie looks like it will mainly be about Smiley at first, and then Sayra, and then El Casper, and even once it makes these shifts it doesn’t forget about the other characters it had left behind. This bucks common screenwriting conventions and makes for a story that can be nicely unpredictable at times even if it does ultimate begin to fit pretty well into the mold of a chase movie in its final act. That said, this universal perspective can be a double edged sword as there really isn’t enough time in this 90 minute film to fully explore all three of the characters that it follows at various points. We’re never given great insight into Sayra’s desire to make a new life, we never get a great idea of what being in the gang means to Smiley, the only character with a reasonable arc is El Casper. This is the dark side of trying to make a movie that’s really tight and fast moving, sometimes you really need those extra minutes and if Fukunaga wanted to make a multi-character epic he probably should accepted the need for a relatively epic runtime.
The movie is not overly political and it shouldn’t offend anyone on either side of the immigration debate who has an even slightly open mind. Really, immigration isn’t what this movie is about, even though one of the characters is trying to cross the border. The film is certainly tying to show how much trouble immigrants go through in order to make it over the border, much the way the 1983 classic El Norte did, but for the most part the film is matter of fact about this and is not trying to enter into a debate with Lou Dobbs. The gang material is similarly matter of fact and offers no easy answers. All in all this is just not a politically partisan film.
In American crime films, Mexico is a place to escape to. Whenever a criminal finds himself “on the lamb” his last ditch plan is to head for Mexico in hopes of finding himself out of the jurisdiction of the police or to disappear from the reach of his less legal enemies. What’s interesting is that here the reverse proves to be just as true. Seeing a Latin American criminal attempt to escape from his troubles out of Mexico and into America, makes one think harder about how Mexico feels about being a vacation destination for criminals. Being able to see things like this from the other perspective is one of the best things that a movie like this can do. Sin Nombre is not the greatest film you’ll see this year, but it is a pretty effective look into this world and by the end you’ll be pretty interested in seeing if the people can get out of their predicament. It’s a pretty fun watch, at least as fun as anything with this kind of subject matter is going to be, and it’s never preachy.
***1/2 out of Four