Director Cary Fukunaga rides its Sundance success into limited release and deserves the critical accolades it has been receiving since January; even if it is all a bit contrived at times.
Casper is a mid level gang member of the Mara gang and he is recruiting the young Smiley to become part of his “brotherhood”. Upon receiving an initiation beating, Smiley becomes part of the gang and we are introduced to the world and many faces of the gang. Meanwhile, south of Mexico in Honduras, a young girl, Sayra, is reunited with he long lost father who has a new family in New Jersey and is trying to get back to them since being deported. Sayra reluctantly agrees to join her father and uncle on the trip to America, but after a bit of thinking, the threesome is off to Mexico on their way to Texas. Casper in the mean time has been sneaking out of his gangs territory to visit his love Martha Marlene whom he has kept a bit in the dark about his life back in his neighborhood. The Mara’s hang out and protect a territory on a train yard that ships immigrants up north, assisting them in their attempt to make it to America, and it just so happens that Sayra, her uncle, and father will be using said train yard to get the trip north going a bit faster. When Casper’s gang leader, Lil Mago, catches wind of his leaving his post in the train yard, a series of events is put into motion and most of these characters mentioned find there way onto to the train heading north.
The film for the first half or so is a fascinating and compelling look into the world of Mexican gangs as well as the struggles of trying to get to the U.S. from Central America. We follow Casper and Smiley as the later learns the ropes of the gang and completes his initiation into the gang, while flashing to Sayra and her story as they work their way to the train station and these two groups worlds collide. The film feels very authentic and looks quite beautiful to boot. With the authenticity though, be prepared to see some shocking things some film goers might not quite be ready for, as the film dips into many of the seedier aspects of gang life. The film feels like a Mexican parallel to City of God when we are following the gang for the first half of the film and is kind of sneakily a gang film mixed into an immigration drama. I was really enthralled with this first half or so of this film and overall was still quite impressed, but I was a bit disappointed at some of the emotional leaps the picture makes once it moves over to the train.
Sayra is the biggest perpetrator of having a bit to unbelievable leaps in character emotions, as there are a few occasions where she acts completely out of character and solely out of the sake of plot. Normally, this can be crushing for a film for me, but the quality of everything in the picture outside of these emotional lapses more than makes up for the, “come on”, moments that pop in there on occasion. Smiley is also an odd character to pin as his motivations are a bit hazy as he makes quite a quick leap to his dedication to the gang. Yeah he wants to impress the others and prove himself, but you get the sense that he really isn’t sure about this whole scene, even if he is all smiles after getting the shit kicked out of him. In fact, thinking about that now, this scene is a bit of a vindication for his actions as he is obviously happy once initiated, but his character has moments of weakness through out that some might have trouble buying into his motivations sometimes.
And again, outside these couple minor lapses, there really isn’t a whole lot to argue with in this film, as most everything works from start to finish. The actors are all fairly good as well, with two of the leads being fairly green actors. Smiley is played by Kristian Ferrer and he successfully brings an innocence lost to his character, and while the writing makes his character make some questionable jumps, Ferrer does a good job of selling us on those emotions though he is arguably the weakest of the leads. Edgar Flores is great as our rouge hero of sorts Casper. The most solidly written character in the film, Flores just nails the character and his arc, and allows you to sympathize with this gang member that has probably done his fair share of awful things as he shows us he is not afraid to kill. Casper and Smiley’s boss Lil Mago is played wonderfully by Tenoch Huerta. His evil charisma and the way he carries himself is just a marvel, but he even shows us hints of humanity through the tough and nasty persona he fronts. But when it comes down to it, Mago is a bad dude, and Huerta makes sure we don’t ever think other wise. Gerardo Taracena plays Sayra’s father and he does a fine enough job, but doesn’t bring anything special to the proceedings either. Paulina Gaitan plays Sayra, and she brings a bit of innocence to her character but is unfortunately left to portray these emotions that don’t quite fit. She did a good job in the film, but it’s hard to really gauge how she did definitively since her character was written with a couple of flawed moments.
In the end, Sin Nombre is an engaging and compelling look into the gang and immigrant way of life in Central America. The actors are solid to fantastic and the story will keep you interested from pretty much start to finish. A couple of writing blunders with the motivations of a couple of the main characters keeps the film from being A material, but those short comings can’t keep it from being one of the more solid films of this short year. I will definitely be picking it up on video later this year, and you should seek it out in your market as it is slowly creeping out to some of the mid level markets across the country this weekend; seek it out.