This is the first feature film from Cary Fukunaga. If this debut from the 31-year-old graduate student from NYU is any indication, he's well on track to becoming one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. He's certainly a soon-to-be contender for Best Director at the Oscars in the not-so-distant future.
Back in 2006, the protests against the Immigration Reform Bill were monumental. In cities all across the country, thousands of people came out, most of whom were from Latin America. All-in-all, it's estimated that more than 1 million people protested.
Those protests against the bill, which really would crack down on illegal immigration, were in the spring. That summer, the FX series 30 Days did an episode, which put a supporter of that bill in the home of actual illegal immigrants. It was a way of getting him to better understand the lives and hardships of those immigrants.
A lot of independent movies made in the wake of that have tried to do the same. They've tried to put audiences in the shoes of illegal immigrants. They've done so to get us to better understand immigrants' lives and hardships. Last spring, the best film to do that was La Misma Luna.
But, where La Misma Luna focused on the desperation and fears that illegal immigrants face while already in the United States, this film concentrates on the desperation and fears before the immigrants ever cross the border. At its core, this film is a thrilling chase for two young Hispanics trying to escape a dangerous situation.
The filmmakers provide us with a daring glimpse into that situation, as well as the deadly intricacies of La Mara Salvatrucha, otherwise known as MS-13, the terrible, Mexican gang whose leader is covered in tattoos and whose forces have an ever-ready supply of drugs and guns. MS-13 robs and rapes with impunity and turns children of no more than ten years into criminals, here ruthless assassins.
Sin nombre is Spanish, roughly translating to "without a name" or "no name" at all. Fukunaga's subplot illustrates the point of how this violent gang strips young people of their names. A young Mexican boy called Benito who is brutally initiated into the gang gets quickly integrated and assimilated so that he's not even referred to as Benito any more.
At the same time, with his main plot, Fukunaga is also able to show how one teenage girl can identify, and even fall in love, with a teenage boy who comes from this same gang, who is without a name. Fukunaga does so as if to prove that people in this gang, trapped in this world, aren't all evil, or not beyond redemption.
The young girl is Sayra. She's from Honduras, but she's on her way with her father and uncle to New Jersey. They're illegal immigrants and their best bet is to go by train. They sneak aboard some empty box cars and then eventually wait on top of the train cars for hundreds of miles till they cross the border.
Sayra crosses paths with Casper, a Mexican boy who can't be older than 20 or so who is very much a part of the MS-13 gang but who rejects its warped idea of family and love. Casper does know love but not in the twisted and scary way that the gang does. MS-13 treats women as objects only to be easily discarded.
Casper wants real love, not what the gang calls love. He decides to escape; a task he knows won't be easy, if even possible. Sayra wants to help but has no idea of the level of malevolence that comes with it. Maybe she does and is willing to deal with it because she sees something in Casper, something worth saving.
A thrilling chase ensues. It's exciting. It's frightening. It's well paced. It's not overly elaborate. It's simple. Yet, in many ways, that makes it much more powerful. It's not drawn out. It feels real. There's one scene atop the train that was excellently executed that way, even in the rain.
Some audiences will be shocked by the utter violence. Some will be shocked by the utter poverty, which is the perfect breeding ground for these kinds of gangs. Some will be shocked by how so many young boys can be so easily lured into this world, despite all logic to the contrary and who stay because of lack of opportunities.
This is by no means a justification. I think Fukunaga underscores the message that this film is about personal responsibility and choices. At crucial steps, the main characters have to make decisions. Not all of them are decisions of the mind but ones of the heart.
The young actors, all of them, are fresh faces even in their native lands. Edgar Flores who plays Casper has this as his very first feature film in a leading role and he comes off so naturally, so authentically. He's perfectly rough. I'd be interested to see him do other things, but he fits so well here.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for violence, language, and some sexual content
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.