Film Review: Sin Nombre

Gripping tale of Hondurans attempting to cross the U.S. border, beset by Mexican thugs. An attention-grabbing feature debut by filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga.

Sin Nombre is a remarkably assured and powerful feature directorial debut by Cary Joji Fukunaga, a young talent emerging from New York University’s Graduate Film Program and the Sundance Lab. Winner of the Best Director award at the recent Sundance Film Festival, this harrowing drama offers an intimate and persuasive look at the illegal immigration issue from the vantage point of the desperate souls fleeing toward a better life—and the brutish gangs who prey on them.

Fukunaga spent two months in Mexico conducting interviews and even taking a dangerous train ride with some 700 immigrants—and the research shows in his movie’s palpable feel of authenticity. Working on location in Mexico with a mix of professional and non-pro actors, he achieves a documentary-like texture that greatly enhances this elemental tale of struggle, unexpected tenderness, and tragedy.

Fukunaga’s script initially follows two unrelated narrative tracks. Sullen teenager Willy (Edgar Flores) recruits 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) into the tough Mara Salvatrucha gang in impoverished Tapachula, Mexico; each gang member kicks and beats the boy as part of the initiation, and then he must further prove his mettle by killing a rival. Within this savage subculture, Willy is something of a brother figure to Smiley, and brings him along to his secret rendezvous with his girlfriend, Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia). But when the forthright Martha crosses paths with volatile gang leader Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía, his face covered in scary tattoos), the encounter leads to attempted rape and Martha’s accidental death.

The movie’s other more gentle story centers on Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teen who joins her long-absent father and uncle on a journey to a hoped-for new life in New Jersey. Crossing over into Mexico, the trio, along with many dozens of other immigrants, wait in the Tapachula rail yard to climb atop a freight train bound for the U.S. border. But Lil’ Mago has enlisted Willy and Smiley to join him in robbing the helpless refugees of their cash and valuables. Still mourning the death of Martha, Willy makes a fateful split decision that dramatically changes his fate—and slowly bonds him with Sayra.

Fukunaga maintains a deft balance of justifiably melodramatic plot elements and low-key realism; the horrific moments here never feel false or overemphatic. The scenes depicting the casual sadism of the Mara gang are particularly, disconcertingly convincing, and set up the threat of sudden violence that courses through the film. But there’s gentleness here too; though Willy initially seems beyond redemption, his relationship with the vital Martha shows his heart isn’t entirely with the all-consuming gang culture, and his later connection with Sayra reveals a surprising nobility. Guided well by the director in his movie debut, Flores earns the audience’s sympathy in small increments.

Gaitan, who has been acting since age nine, has beauty, warmth and charisma, yet never seems out of place in this tale of poverty and distress. Her chemistry with the relatively inexperienced Flores buoys the audience’s hope for these two outcast characters. Bright young acting veteran Ferrer also makes a strong impression as the sadly impressionable Smiley, and Huerta Mejía is truly terrifying as the violently assertive Lil’ Mago.

Fukunaga proves himself as adept with scenes of action, gunplay and suspense as he is with detailing the look and feel of this unforgiving world. No wonder he’s already been signed to a two-picture deal with Focus and Universal. “Sin Nombre” translates as “without a name,” but Cary Joji Fukunaga makes his name with this auspicious debut.