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      Sin nombre Review

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      Sin nombre

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      Crushingly realistic one minute and melodramatically hokey the next - the strategy worked for "Slumdog Millionaire," why not for "Sin Nombre"? This debut feature comes from writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga, an Oakland native who developed his project at the Sundance Institute. The film went on to considerable acclaim at this year's Sundance Film Festival, as did last year's "Frozen River."

      I wonder if there's something in the Sundance development process that encourages talented writer-directors in the direction of contrivance and overplotting. As much as I was taken with "Frozen River," the narrative obstacles - quite separate from the very real, truthfully observed socioeconomic obstacles facing its characters - had a way of competing with the people on-screen. Similarly, as accomplished as "Sin Nombre" is in many ways, you're always aware of the ever-tightening plot screws, rather than the human beings caught in one threatening situation after another.

      A generation ago, director Gregory Nava followed a brother and sister as they fled their Guatemalan village and set their sights on a better life in "El Norte." "Sin Nombre" charts another human migratory pattern, that of Central Americans risking their lives to get to Mexico, and then up into Texas, or California, or elsewhere. It's not as expansive as "El Norte"; unlike Nava's film, this tale - equal parts gang drama, manhunt and thriller - ends at the border itself.

      Much of the film deals with a perilous train journey, and the two plot lines are laid out like two tracks destined to intersect. In Honduras, teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) agrees to travel with her father and uncle to Mexico and, eventually, join part of the extended family living in an exotic question mark known as New Jersey.

      Meantime, in Tapachula, Mexico, Casper (Edgar Flores), also a teenager, is trying to stay alive as part of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Casper's girlfriend (Diana Garcia) doesn't know the full extent of his violent activities. Early on we see the brutal hazing undergone by the latest initiate, 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer). The Mara's vicious leader, Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), enlists Casper and Smiley in robbing the immigrants riding atop boxcars. On one car, Casper saves Sayra from sexual assault.

      At this point he becomes a marked man. The relationship that develops between Sayra and Casper is dubiously fleshed out at best, false at worst. And right about here, the film shifts into full-on melodrama, complete with cliffhangers and coincidence and the usual arsenal of shortcuts, as opposed to dramatized reality.

      It's the off-plot sights that stick in the memory, as when a group of villagers toss oranges to the migrants on the train. That moment plays like reality and poetry. Similarly, when Ferrer's Smiley endures his gang hazing and emerges from the beating bloody but triumphant - "congratulations, homie," he's told by the ringleader who will later order Smiley to kill his first rival gang member - it's a disturbing chord Fukunaga strikes. He has talent. If he can shake the hokum from his system, he may well develop a distinctive storytelling voice to go with the technical facility.

      MPAA rating: R (for violence, language and some sexual content).

      Running time: 1:36.

      Opening: Friday.

      Starring: Paulina Gaitan (Sayra); Edgar Flores (Casper, a.k.a. Willy); Kristyan Ferrer (Smiley); Tenoch Huerta Mejia (Lil' Mago); Diana Garcia (Martha Marlene).

      Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga; produced by Amy Kaufman. A Focus Features release. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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