Immigration dramas tend to be a crap shoot. Often they are too concerned with the social, political and economic injustices of the places in Central and South America that one needs to emigrate from at any cost. They are more about the whole than the part, neglecting deep characters for stereotypes and microcosms.
The problem is that these morality films are usually boring as hell. And that’s where Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga has a winner. He spends as little time dwelling on the whole as possible, instead opting for a classic road-trip story of the parts: the people who are emigrating and the gang members trying to kill one of them. It’s a leap of faith in character before culture that earned the Japanese-Swedish–American the dramatic directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Sin Nombre follows the fortunes of Casper (Edgar Flores), a Mexican gang member on the run from his own crew, and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teen newly reunited with her father and uncle. The family is trying to cross the border illegally to get to relatives in New Jersey. While attempting to rob the train’s illegal riders, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), the gang leader, tries to rape Sayra. Casper, boiling with murderous rage after Mago tried the same on his girlfriend, puts a stop to it … with his machete. Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), the gang’s newest (and youngest) initiate, begs to be given the chance to track down Casper and avenge Mago’s murder to prove he is worthy of the gang’s coveted tattoo.
Casper’s is a life of quiet desperation. Fed up with the lifestyle, he goes about gang business halfheartedly. His only refuge is the short moments he gets – at the expense of his duties – with a girlfriend that he keeps hidden from the gang. She believes his reluctance to tell his gangmates about her stems from embarrassment about their relationship, but he’s actually protecting her from a lifestyle that she is not suited to.
Sayra is only reluctantly trying to cross the border to be with her father’s new family, which she doesn’t feel a part of. He left when she was a child, but was recently deported and is trying to get back. She is as lonely a soul as Casper. Gaitan plays her with aplomb, perfectly capturing the wistful soul of a girl caught between two worlds, neither of them her own, neither of them worth the risk she’s taken to be there.
In a country that is steadily fed the idea that we need to build a fence to keep these people out of our country, we need this kind of film to keep a modicum of sanity alive in the conversation. After all, at some point in our lineage, almost all of us are immigrants.