"I felt strange about the possibility of profiting on a story about real people risking their lives," "Sin Nombre" director Cary Joji Fukunaga told indieWIRE in an interview that details the extensive (and, at times, life-threatening) research he did for his feature directorial debut. "I get frustrated with certain filmmakers who stand under a banner of altruism with their socio/political stories that I think sometimes border on the exploitative. Often times human interest stories with sensational subjects often go on to win awards. I guess I feel that the filmmakers had to sacrifice little to make it, and once done, never again revisit the subject but reap all the benefits from others misery. As author of the story, the only way I felt I could try and level that difference would be to share in the risk. Since I was telling a story about the journey, I could at least tell it as I saw it. So, despite my friend’s protests, I decided to ride the train."
“Sin Nombre” premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the directing award and the cinematography award. indieWIRE's review of the film at Sundance sets up the plot of the film:
"The movie’s first act focuses on the gritty lifestyle of Mexican gang member Willy (Edgar Flores), a tough-minded urban teen whose harsh ways mask his softer side. Early on, Willy recruits timid twelve-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), inducting him into the menacing Mara Salvatrucha brotherhood simply by beating the shit out of him. (The gang’s savage behavior may strike some as stereotypical, and it’s hard to argue the point.) Willy’s ferocious style, however, looks downright docile compared to gang leader Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a hefty mass of anger and muscles with a murderous streak. His face buried in menacing tattoos, Lil’ Mago has the qualities of a cartoon villain, unlike the other major players in the plot. Fortunately, his presence is literally short-lived; after the boss kills off Willy’s innocent lover, Willy exacts his revenge in the middle of a train heist. Following his decisive actions, the now former thug goes on the lam, while Smiley hesitantly takes on the duty of pursuing his former mentor."
Both at Sundance and now as it reaches its March 20th release through Focus Features, "Sin Nombre" has certainly found acclaim.
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir introduces his interview with Fukunaga by noting: "Tempting as it may be to dislike Fukunaga for his meteoric rise, if you see "Sin Nombre" you'll be convinced. Impressively shot in a series of dire Mexican locations, "Sin Nombre" is simultaneously a grueling, gripping road thriller, a wrenching emotional journey and an amazing evocation of a world few norteamericanos will ever see. There was nothing else at Sundance this year that grabbed audiences by the throat and didn't let them go -- if they could ride through the harrowing violence of the first few minutes, that is. There have been precious few combinations of low-budget indie naturalism and plot-driven genre film, and I can't think of any that are anywhere near this successful."
Variety's Todd McCarthy seconds that motion. "A big new talent arrives on the scene with 'Sin Nombre,'" he writes. "Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s enthralling feature debut takes viewers into a shadow world inhabited by many but noticed by very few -- that of Central American migrants making the perilous trip through Mexico to get to the United States border. Shot on extraordinary locations with a capable unknown cast, this Focus Features release will stir considerable interest for its artistic and social aspects and has dual commercial potential in art/specialized release and in the Spanish-language market."
Both The New York Post's Lou Lumenick and The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern write similarly gushing reviews. "Forget those weepie liberal cliches," writes Lumenick. "This starless and vividly authentic romantic thriller set in Central America really rocks, and is one of the most exciting directorial debuts in years." While Morgenstern writes: "Mr. Fukanaga's purpose is to evoke the immigrants' experience, which he does with such eloquence and power as to inspire awe."
A group of other reviewers - though all appreciative of the film's craftsmanship - are considerably more mixed overall.
The AV Club's Scott Tobias writes: "Earlier this year, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature Sin Nombre collected awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival. It was also developed in the Sundance lab. Both these facts help explain what’s exciting and disappointing about it." Tobias heralds the film's "gorgeous widescreen panoramas," but calls the script "sadly endemic of the earnest, conventional, issue-oriented mediocrities produced and rewarded by Sundance nearly every year. No cliché goes unturned."
Scott Foundas speaks similarly - though a bit more harshly - in The Village Voice: "Lushly photographed and meticulously sound-designed, Sin Nombre is visceral without being vital, researched without ever seeming lived-in. The best that can be said is that it's a more honest film on the subject of immigration than the recent Crossing Over—but then again, so is Beverly Hills Chihuahua."
While still giving it an somewhat mixed review, The New York Times' Manohla Dargis is considerably more admiring: "What keeps the movie from tipping into full-blown exploitation like 'City of God,'" she writes, "which turns third-world misery into art-house thrills, is Mr. Fukunaga’s sincerity. What keeps you watching is his superb eye. Working with his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, he fills in the cracks of his story with moments of beauty — children tossing oranges up to the train, Casper sleeping under a canopy of trees — that make you want to see what comes next."
On March 26th at 7pm, join filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga at the Apple Store SoHo as he discusses "Sin Nombre." indieWIRE Editor in Chief Eugene Hernandez will moderate the discussion.