It’s an adaptation of a children’s book! That’s the only card directors Stephen Daldry and Christian Duurvoort can pull out in defense of their infantile “Trash,” a film that will make you feel like a kid again, just by how tightly it holds your hands. Richard Curtis (writer/director of “Love Actually,” which remains his greatest work) adapts the film’s screenplay from Andy Mulligan‘s novel about a trio of impoverished Brazilian boys who discover a very valuable wallet while working at a local dumpsite. Parents now have a choice of whether they want to buy Mulligan’s book (which I haven’t read but have seen praised as excellent reading material for 12-16-year-olds), or watch how Daldry, Duurvoort and Curtis have interpreted it for the screen. Judging the film on its own meager merits doesn’t really leave much room for choice. If the adventures and egalitarian messages found in the unfortunately-titled “Trash” appeal to you, do yourself and your child a big favor and go to your nearest bookstore.
I know what some of you are thinking. “But… Rooney Mara! Martin Sheen!” No. Beware of false movie-marketing prophets. They may be headlining the film’s ads, but they’re mere placemats in “Trash.” Mara plays Olivia and Sheen plays Father Julliard, two golden-hearted Americans who are doing God’s work with the poor people of Brazil: their combined screen time is less than 10 minutes. To call them one-dimensional characters is to fail geometry, because the correct answer is zero. This made painfully obvious in how their actual purpose is revealed in the last minute of the film. Sheen looks at least mildly invested (and challenged when speaking Portuguese), but Mara has that “I’d rather be anywhere else, smh” look in all of her four and a half scenes. Both actors must’ve been attracted to the project because of the charitable work they’ve done in the Philippines and Kenya, respectively, but with a script like this, one can only feign interest.
The story is really about the three boys, Raphael (Rickon Tevis), Gardo (Eduardo Luis) and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein), and to a lesser extent Jose Angelo (Wagner Moura, the only adult player who rises above the material). The whole thing begins when Jose Angelo, who is chased by cops in the opening minutes of the film, and in a moment of desperation, throws a wallet into a passing garbage truck. This wallet finds its way to Raphael’s hands, who along with Gardo and Rato works at one of the city’s dumps. In it, they find some money, a picture of a young girl and some coded numbers. It’s revealed that Jose Angelo was once a loyal bodyguard to the uber-corrupt politico Santos (Stepan Nercessian) before he turned on him. Now, bad cop Carlos (Jose Dumont) is ordered by Santos to take any means necessary to find that wallet, because it leads to a lot of money and one compromising ledger that would destroy the bad man’s career. In the meantime, Americans Olivia and Father Julliard hang around the favelas.
Tevis, Luis, and Weinstein are non-professional actors who infuse their roles with a charming, au naturel earnestness. Much of the possible enjoyment from “Trash” will come from how firmly their charisma will keep one’s blinders on to the surrounding treatment of character development, story progression and guileless themes. Maybe I’m impervious to the charms of children, or perhaps I’ve seen too many excellent child performances in other movies, but my blinders were never completely on. The boys do a good enough job, but nothing as remarkable as to make me forget Curtis’ infuriatingly simplistic screenplay.
Words like “corruption” and “police brutality” are thrown around thoughtlessly and with zero context. Raphael tells us, in fact, how “everyone knows the police treat poor people like,” —wait for it— “trash.” When he is taken away by Carlos (and treated brutality, because that’s what cops do in Brazil, he told us so!), Father Julliard rants and raves in the police station only to come back home, sighs and says “he’s probably dead.” That’s the good American priest, played by Sheen, so we know it must be a possibility, right? When Olivia asks the boys why they continue in their struggle to solve the mystery of the wallet’s contents, they respond, “because it’s right.” Mara’s raised eyebrow says it all. Too many times, “Trash” asks the audience to trust its characters and their words unconditionally by throwing around terms like “change,” “hope,” and “rights” with no basis whatsoever. Do the filmmakers fear the kids just wouldn’t get it? God forbid the 12-16 year old crowd (presumably the target audience here) actually come to some of these conclusions on their own.
There are but a few redeeming factors for adults to cling onto, and only one really worthy of big praise: the work of cinematographer Adriano Goldman (whose credits include early work for Cary Joji Fukunaga on”Sin Nombre” and “Jane Eyre“) who displays some vividly eye-catching cinematography. But it’s hardly enough to save the picture. One of the most blatant attempts at distracting from the insubstantial storyline, the hollow characters and the cookie-cutter idealism is the directors’ incessant use of the “Meanwhile Back At The Ranch” structure. Daldry and Duurvoort wear it down so much that it becomes a transparent gimmick, one unsuccessful at hiding the film’s supremely weak core. Obviously, its heart is in the right place, and one can only hope the story and characters read better in Mulligan’s book, but as far as “Trash” the film is concerned, the result is disposable. [D+]