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In Tapachula, Mexico, Mara Salvatrucha gang member Casper (Edgar Flores) takes young Benito under his wing to be inducted into the brotherhood. In the Honduras, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan, "Innocent Voices," "Trade") joins her young uncle and estranged father to head to New Jersey and the rest of their family. When Sayra gets to the Tapachula train yards, Casper acts instinctually, saving her, and so must join those trying to leave Mexico "Sin Nombre."
Writer/director Cary Fukunaga has two shorts on his bio - one on violence breeding more of the same and one dealing with the tragic deaths of a truckload of Mexicans suffocated on their journey north - that he weds in the feature debut which won the Best Director award at 2008's Sundance Film Festival. Fukunaga is a fine craftsman, but his story, a kind of "Under the Same Moon" by way of "The Warriors," is one that has been told many times before. "Sin Nombre" certainly holds interest while it unspools, but filmic familiarity with its dual subject matters keeps it shy of being memorable even as it marks Fukunaga as one to watch.
Casper is established snatching Benito (Kristian Ferrer), quickly nicknamed Smiley, from the home of a disapproving grandmother to present to the Mara. After a horrific initiation in which the young kid is savagely beaten, he learns he will not be fully accepted into the gang until he kills a Chavala, a Mara turf enemy. When Casper goes to visit girlfriend Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia) instead of taking Smiley to Chavala territory, his lie is sniffed out by Mara leader Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta) and Casper pays for his disloyalty dearly.
Fukunaga crosscuts with Sayra's admittedly less enthralling tale as she makes her way with her family towards Casper's turf, where immigrants jump aboard the tops of trains making their way towards the U.S. border. Lil Mago takes Casper and Smiley with him to rob the unfortunates which pass through their town, but when he wants more from Sayra than her money, Casper, reacting to his own recent loss, kills his blood brother and tells Smiley to head back to town. Sayra's father and uncle warn her away from the violent gang member, but Sayra tentatively forms a relationship. Meanwhile Smiley becomes a crucial member of the posse sent out to revenge Lil Mago's murder.
While it is pretty clear where the story will lead, Fukunaga's firm helming hand combined with fine work from cinematographer Adriano Goldman ("The Year My Parents Went on Vacation," "City of Men") and a compelling cast maintain interest. Edgar Flores is convincing as the violent gang member with a romantic heart and Gaitan's innocence is appealing. Huerta is terrific as Lil Mago, cold blooded but with a sense of family, loyalty and honor. His altercation with Casper's woman may be a cliche, but Huerta's playing is never black and white. If there is a story line that doesn't ring true, it is with Ferrer's Smiley. Although the young actor makes clear his pride in recognition from both the Mara and his younger, impressed former playmates, his loyalty and friendship with Casper are too easily jettisoned.
The director defines his locations well, although more back story on a community which seems to exist in order to assist the train hoppers would have helped. Fukunaga uses a constantly repeated telephone number to humorous and dramatic effect, but lets a similar, less prominent opportunity fall through the cracks at film's end.
"Sin Nombre" is a well crafted film that achieves its agendas, but it doesn't bring anything new to the tale of the illegal immigrant.
and Ratings Archive | Airtimes
10 | Video
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