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Sin Nombre | Review

Going North: Fukunaga offers daring ride into the eye of the storm.

Describing the gritty back story of the lucky few who make it past the U.S/Mexican border and the hundreds of thousands who unfortunately don’t share in the same fate, Cary Joki Fukunaga’s debut brilliantly details the sort of shared ride experience that is rarely addressed by the media. Supported by a stunning composition and brimming with an authenticity that in some key sequences are unsettling as much as it is gripping, Sin Nombre conventionally treats some traumatisms with too much hope and the filmmaker might not have the maturity to make any underlying stronger social or political observations, but he manages to deliver a strong, adrenaline rush of a debut, free of exploitative descriptions and astute in its observations.

For the millions of impoverished families sprawled across Central America the only option is the northbound one. Smartly excluding what would have been only a topical discussion of America’s thirst for cheap labour and already covered in less than convincing Hollywoodized treatments on similar subject matter, the fabric of this screenplay is the notion of family explored via two perspectives and in three neighboring countries.

Before converging the duel story-lines in one bloody confrontation on a moving freight train, and what easily becomes the film’s most harrowing sequence, Fukunaga tells us that family is the last thing thing you want to break away from. Like a horror film where the ratio of living and not breathing decidedly changes over the course of time, here there is comfort in knowing that there is safety in numbers.

Farther to the north we find the brotherhood gangs that litter some of the train stops along the way. When they aren’t caught up in turf wars with rival gangs, they prey on the weaker defenseless ones passing thru. Family in the blood-related sense is witnessed via a wise patriarch, who does what he can to protect his more vulnerable young teenage daughter from the elements. When one member of the doomed gang life decides to part ways with this life, a different fate awaits him, and he foreseeably meets it head on with his wit intact. While there are enough antagonistic forces in the elements such as train accidents, decapitations and a lack of resources, all this is amplified by tattooed thugs with machetes and hand me down guns who chase down their AWOL member. The filmmaker demystifies the gang culture of the region and evocatively describes the dangers of the taxing trek from Honduras into tiny Guatemala and then northbound into Mexico, but apart from this there isn’t much of a discourse here.

Fukunaga embraces the notion that tragedy is usually one false step away and clearly for everyone involved, the cards are stacked against them, but the inserted romanticism and proposed purpose for self-preservation in the character of Casper, brilliantly portrayed by non-actor Edgar Flores, is perhaps a little too much extra packaging for the story’s most pivotal character. Just like a train rarely leaves its tracks, the final destination for the narrative belongs to a strategy in telling the story, and though the screenplay contains multiple “hope” indicators and perhaps one too many pitfalls are put in place to maintain this escape or be caught narrative drive forward, what this becomes is a film that would normally be tagged art-house and follow in the footsteps of other Sundance fair but instead might be received as a rare film with subtitles that has the capacity to appeal to the mainstream auds.

Aided by cinematographer Adriano Goldman, his technical prowess is displayed by a terrific balancing act between small in scope, handheld, richly detailed pieces of daily life and when widened with the sometimes, technically difficult shots on a constantly moving plain, it delivers a moody, dark tone that are mixed with a lush array of beautiful starkly outdoor scapes. Fukunaga asserts himself here in his debut film – he has an impressive skill set as a visual story-teller and key to the synergy of the film, is his work with young, and most times, inexperienced cast. In Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) we find a face that demonstrates in one circumstance a naiveté and that the world despite all of its horrors can still contain some compassion, which is lost the pre-teen eyes of Kristyan Ferrer and is ghostly gone from the vicious gang ring leader in the character played Tenoch Huerta Mejia. The characters combined display the survival mechanisms and the true cost of the migration towards the U.S. Or the result of remaining in one place and this is more fulfilling than when the story teeters on the idea of unselfish redemption beautifully embodied in Flores’ brilliant performance. The score and the film’s climax found in the middle portion of the film and the film’s anti-climatic ending will linger for days after the viewing.

The film title translates as “without a name”, but with Sin Nombre the young writer-director has indeed made a name for himself.

Reviewed on January, 19th 2009.

Rating 3.5 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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