A vivid and stunning feature from first-timer Cary Fukunaga, Sin Nombre is a beautifully told drama that puts faces and motivations on the struggle of thousands of Central Americans immigrants trying to make their way to America. Despite the obvious ground for potential controversy, this is a well-grounded story that keeps focus on the characters and their struggle, bypassing the broader political issues at hand.
The title itself means “without name” in reference to the faceless and nameless status of all the illegal immigrants trying to reach America, of all the people living amid poverty and violence that turns hopeless kids into children-soldiers and thugs. The film opens as Willy goes to fetch a 12-yr old boy named Smiley for his “initiation” rites to join the shockingly violent gang Mara Salvatrucha. Those consist of a dozen gang members beating Smiley within an inch of his life and then having him execute a rival gang member — under the watchful eyes of malevolent gang leader Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) who is simultaneously holding his infant son in his arms.
The film depicts the grueling northward journey of Honduran teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who is headed for the American border with hopes of a better life. Accompanied by her absentee father and uncle, she spends most of the long and dangerous journey riding on the crowded tops of freight trains, dodging both the border patrol and the criminals that prey on these vulnerable flock of travelers. One such thug is Willy “El Casper” (Edgar Flores), a reluctant Mexican gang member whose pivotal moment of decency during a robbery attempt on Sayra puts his fellow gang members on his tail and binds his fate to that of the girl he saved.
The main characters are developed sufficiently and it is easy to understand the motivations for their actions. Much like City of God, a movie that Sin Nombre is somewhat reminiscent of, numerous non-professional actors were used and they all manage to perform very competently. Edgar Flores gives an endearing and charismatic performance as Willy, a reluctant gang member who is starting to realize the extent of his hopeless situation. His unlikely and slowly budding relationship with Sayra is realistic and never gets to the point of being contrived because it focuses on the fact that she sees the good in him when no one else does.
Director Cary Fukunaga spent months researching for this movie, living among gang members and traveling with migrant workers. This grounded the movie in the realm of authenticity despite the fact that it is a work of fiction and earned him the prize for best director at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. This authenticity is also reflected in the stunning cinematography by Adriano Goldman which also gives the film an artist’s flair. Sin Nombre is beautifully shot and full of powerful imagery, maybe even too many given the abject conditions it portrays. The narrative does suffer somewhat from the predictability of a doomed ending, we expect certain events to happen well before they do because there is no other way for this to end. Nevertheless, this does not distract much from the journey at hand and this is certainly a movie that will rivet you from beginning to end.
Haunting and gripping, Sin Nombre is a triumphant debut for director-writer Cary Fukunaga and a highly recommended watch.
Notes: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content, 96 minutes, a Focus Features release.