By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 18, 2009 at 2:24AM
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
At different times, "Sin Nombre" is a harsh coming-of-age tale, a gripping man-on-the-lam thriller, a social drama, a road movie, and a love story. Sometimes, it's all of those things. That's not to say the first feature written and directed by Sundance Lab alumnus Cary Joji Fukunaga suffers from an imbalance of moods. However, because its thematic palate stretches so wide, "Sin Nombre" feels excessively busy, despite containing a relatively basic plot at its core. Fukunaga projects a limited message, but finds multiple ways to express it -- some better than others.
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.
It's here that "Sin Nombre" becomes utterly compelling. Willy and Smiley represent two distinct stages of youth rebellion, as Willy learns to free himself of a corrupt environment while Smiley revels in it. In the first act, Fukunaga cuts between their violent street life in the small, impoverished town of Tapachula and a standard immigration story starring another teen, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), as she and her family make preparations to travel through Mexico to the United States. Sayra's plight doesn't command much attention until it intersects with Willy's on the moving train, where the two characters eventually pair up in the hopes of finishing the journey together. Although there are plenty conventional genre elements at work here, to Fukunaga's credit, he avoids telling a fairy tale. The fate of Willy and Sayra's valiant mission doesn't quite work out as planned.
Fukunaga seems to be trying out all his strengths at once with his directorial debut, which accounts for the difficulty involved in categorizing the movie. It moves at a frantic pace, with plenty of sharply choreographed chases and gunshots galore. But there's a smaller, quieter movie beneath this glaring abrasive layer, one that involves the pitifully crass nature of gang fury and the disheartening power it commands over gullible imaginations. Smiley takes a liking to the gang because it gives him a sense of belonging to a significant source of power; Willy eventually rejects the gang because he recognizes this power as inherently corrupt.
The keen juxtaposition of their perspectives gives "Sin Nombre" a lively central conflict, which only gets derailed by tangential concerns, particularly the half-hearted romance between Willy and Sayra. Even when the movie operates on a familiar plain, however, it remains a wonder to behold. Adriano Goldman's colorful photography captures the Mexican countryside as a highly expressive moving painting, especially since much of it takes place on a moving train. Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore suggested at the premiere for the film that this audacious decision indicates a kind of bold naivete -- which, paradoxically, makes the movie work on its own terms. Fukunaga's steady tale of risk-taking ultimately gets lucky.