“The Florida Project” excelled at showing how a child’s imagination can provide the mental armor necessary to endure impoverished circumstances, but it never had a monopoly on the concept. “Los Lobos,” the bittersweet new feature from director Samuel Kishi, plays like a thematic variation on the same beguiling premise in the context of the American immigrant experience. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age story about migrant life through the prism of its most innocent figures.
That means eight-year-old Max (Maximiliano Nájar Márquez) and five-year-old Leo (Leonardo Nájar Márquez) guide the story through a series of drab environments using the only tools at their disposal. Promised by single mom Lucía (Martha Reyes Arias) that their move from Mexico to Albuquerque will result in a trip to Disneyland, they instead find themselves locked in a squalid apartment all day while she juggles a pair of low-income jobs. The line she feeds her Spanish-speaking children to get them hyped — “I want to go Disney!” — embodies the tragicomic charm at the center of the movie: They’ll be lucky if they can make it to a carnival.
With time, “Los Lobos” blossoms into a wondrous adventure story, as its pint-sized protagonists — given delicate chemistry by the real-life brothers playing them — gather the courage to venture outside and discover the strange new world just beyond their comprehension. Based in part on the filmmaker’s own experiences (his mother obtained a travel visa for a Disneyland trip), “Los Lobos” unfolds with a sharp naturalism even as it burrows into the way the boys’ imagination helps them process the challenges around them. That includes the bleak story of their father’s death, which comes together gradually in tandem with Max’s understanding of it. Tasked with the role of the older taskmaster, Max is trapped between the pressure to mature beyond his years and the limitations of childhood curiosity, yielding one of the most striking child performances this side of Antoine Doinel (or Brooklynn Prince, for that matter).
For a time, Kishi lingers in the siblings’ experiences in the empty environment where their mother tells them to remain throughout each day. With only a handful of cassette tapes to practice English and listen to the voices of their late relatives from back home, the entertainment options dwindle rather quickly, as Kishi’s camera watches the boys attempt to amuse themselves throughout the long days. Guided by a winsome pop soundtrack and unhurried camerawork, their experiences develop into an entrancing, unpredictable journey.
Enigmas lurk at every corner as Max and Leo make fascinating attempts to decode them: Overhearing a couple brawling next door, the boys make an amusing attempt to imitate vulgar American dialogue (the word “fuck,” repeated without context, evolves into a distended punchline). Hearing the moans of a sexual encounter, poor Leo cowers in a corner. And peeking outside the window, Max wonders whether he can get away with hanging around with some neighborhood kids. That intrigue leads to a series of dramatic turns that jeopardize the family’s future and test the small family’s resolve; one moment of excitement around the potential of liberation leads to theft and confrontation in the small housing complex that seems to adhere to its own laws.
“Los Lobos” doesn’t always stick to the brothers’ perspective, and offers a striking visual contrast when exploring Lucía’s sleepless work routine. As she wanders a vast warehouse while cleaning the floors, Kishi films the actress passing a vast American flag pinned to the wall, and the metaphor might feel heavy-handed if it weren’t so clearly rooted in authentic experience. Arias, making her feature-length debut, conveys a blend of determination and outright exhaustion as she struggles to find some measure of stability. Kishi doesn’t dwell in the downbeat nature of her struggle, nor does he make any attempt to overstate it in ways that might register as poverty porn. Instead, “Los Lobos” comes so close to hovering within her uneasy work-life balance it may as well be a documentary.
Nevertheless, “Los Lobos” works best when it remains within the confines of the children, balancing grittiness with sentimentality to rousing effect. At times, the movie hobbles from the restless energy of an early work, including a well-intentioned motif that finds other figures from the migrant community gazing into the camera, reminding us that each face tells a different story. That’s a fine observation, but somewhat self-evident in the context of the case study that the movie provides. Meanwhile, occasional animated interludes illustrate how the boys envision themselves as jittery line drawings, a precocious device reminiscent of Jeremiah Zagar’s “We the Animals” that’s less revealing than cute in this context.
Yet “Los Lobos” thrives as an intimate window into what it means to confront immigrant life in piecemeal. It evades blunt twists in favor of minor steps forward, arriving at a cathartic moment that doesn’t exactly solve the family’s challenges so much as it shows their potential to figure it out as a unit. It’s a remarkable statement about the nature of the America experienced by those who traverse its borders, and registers as both subversive and sincere in its implications: America may not be a land of opportunity for Lucía and her children, but simply figuring that out and getting through it registers as a powerful act of defiance.
“Los Lobos” premieres on HBO Max on July 31, 2020.