Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Movie Review: Sin Nombre

Sin Nombre *** ½
Directed By: Cary Fukunaga.
Written By: Cary Fukunaga.
Starring: Edgar Flores (Willy/El Casper), Paulina Gaitan (Sayra), Kristian Ferrer (El Smiley), Tenoch Huerta (Lil Mago), Diana Garcia (Martha Marlene).

Sin Nombre is a film about two very different people who are both trying to cross over the border from Mexico in America, but for very different reasons. Unlike the recent film Crossing Over, which tried very hard to look at the issue of illegal immigration from every angle and failed, Sin Nombre simply tells the story of these two people running away from their past and trying to start a better future for themselves. They are under no delusions that life in America will be easy, but it’s got to beat what they have in their home countries. They simply want to get out.

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is from Honduras, and is being raised by her uncle and grandmother. Her mother died years ago, and her father left for America, where he eventually settled in New Jersey and started a new family. But he comes home to get his daughter, and his brother, to try and make the journey again. He wants his family with him. They walk a long way until they cross the border into Mexico. Then they hope a train. Like old movies we see of the great depression, they these are packed with people who climb onto the roof on the train and make their journey, trying to avoid border patrol and police all the way. The constant threat of deportation, or worse death, hangs over their every moment.

Willy (Edgar Flores) is in a gang in the slums of Mexico. They gang doesn’t seem to do very much except hang around, commit small burglaries, and kill members of their rival gang. Willy, who is none in the Gang as El Casper, has taken Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) under his wing and has gotten him initiated into his gang. This involves being beat up by the entire gang for 13 seconds, and then killing a member of their rivals. Smiley, who is no more than about 12, wants to be in the gang badly, and so he does whatever Willy tells him to. Willy also has a girlfriend – Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), but she is not the typical “hood rat” that the other gangs members have. She is middle class, and doesn’t understand why Willy tries to hide her from his friends. She shows up at one of their meetings, and it’s the worst mistake of her life. Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), the gang’s leader, escorts her away from the group, and tries to rape her. When she fights back, he kills her. He tells Willy not to worry about it – he can find someone else – and then takes Willy and Smiley on a mission to rob the immigrants on the train. Willy, still angry, snaps when Lil Mago starts going after Sayra, and kills him. Now, the entire gang, including Smiley, is after him, so he stays on the train to try get out of the country. Sayra, grateful that he saved her, hangs around him even though he tells her he is trouble.

This is just the beginning of the movie, which continues on their journey on the train throughout Mexico, and flashes back to the gang closing in on Willy. The film is about these people on their journey North, trying to escape the hell of their lives back home. Sayra is the films most sympathetic character, because she is a young, beautiful girl simply trying her best to hold onto to her family, and make a better life for herself. Illegal immigrants, who are often villified and treated like scum by the news shows in America, risk their lives for weeks on end just to get a chance to come to America and live out their dream. Yes, what they are doing is illegal, but they have endured so much to get there.

Willy is less sympathetic, because after all, we know he has killed, probably more than once in the past. But writer/director Cary Fukunaga does an excellent job of showing the inner dynamic in the gang, and how much of a pull it is towards young men. Young Smiley seems like an innocent kid, but during the course of the movie, his fate will be sealed forever. Willy, a little older, a little wiser, has finally realized the hollowness and emptiness of gang life, and just wants to get out, even though he knows it is impossible. Once you become a gang member, you’re one for life, and getting out isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Writer/director Cary Fukunaga has made an excellent debut film. A winner at the Sundance film festival for Best Director and Best Cinematography, Fukunaga’s films has a more classical, less flashy style than many young directors take these days. This is not a movie full of shaky, handheld camera work, and constant, flashy editing, but a movie that takes it’s time to establish its characters and their stories, and whose shot have a richness and texture that is rare in independent movies these days.

The movie makes a few wrong turns along the way, as Sayra does something that I don’t believe she would do, simply so that Fukunaga can advance the plot a little more, and get his two main characters alone. But this is a small gripe with what is otherwise a wonderful little movie. In a season where every week seems to bring us another huge blockbuster, full of explosions, inane dialogue and cookie cutter characters, Sin Nombre is a reminder of what movies should be like. It’s a personal highlight during this season of blockbusters.

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