‘The Kings of the World’ Review: Colombia’s Oscar Entry Is a Ferocious Fable About a Quest to Find a Home

The film, now streaming on Netflix, stars a cast of first-time actors.
Kings of the World
"The Kings of the World"
Film Factory

Before “The Kings of the World,” the latest feature from Colombian writer-director Laura Mora, inserts us in the bustling streets of Medellín, where teenagers wield machetes to protect themselves, a shot of a fairy-tale-appropriate white horse introduces the dreamlike atmosphere of this ferocious fable about five adolescent street boys denied basic humanity.

Homeless and with no blood family to guard them, the young souls at the forefront of this electrifying social drama fend for themselves in a gritty urban environment. Their only comfort comes from the brotherly affection they display for one another. That state, caught between tenderness and violence as they navigate an inhospitable reality, defines the visceral energy of “The Kings of the World,” Colombia’s most recent Oscar entry.

The leader of the group, 19-year-old Rá (Carlos Andrés Castañeda), has just learned that the land his grandmother was forcefully evicted from many years in the past has finally been returned to him, the sole heir, as part of the government’s land restitution policies. As Rá, Castañeda exudes an air of innocence wrapped in determination. Heroically not bitterdespitef the harshness he’s faced, his large, expressive eyes illuminate a path forward.

Ecstatic to finally have a place to call home, where no one can look down on him, Rá embarks on a perilous trip to claim his piece of the world with his band of ride-or-dies: Sere (Davison Florez), a loyal ally with a hand disability, Winny (Brahian Acevedo), the youngest but also the wildest, Nano (Cristian Campaña), a quiet Black Colombian kid, and Culebro (Cristian David Duque), an antagonist in constant conflict with Rá. Through their arguments, we can infer that while the two were raised together, they are not related.

All first-time actors found by Mora in underprivileged neighborhoods, the cast radiates an empirical understanding of their characters’ longing for acceptance. That the teens’ onscreen bond reads so convincingly steeped in shared battle scars, emotional support, and physical demonstrations of mutual care validates the choices and performance-shaping methods of the director, whose debut, “Killing Jesus,” a semi-autobiographical piece inspired by her father’s murder, also featured young non-professionals in the lead roles.

First on bicycle, then on foot, the treacherous journey through mountains, small towns, and plenty of greenery will confront the kids with people for whom their mere existence signifies an inconvenience. Despite their polite demeanor and deference to their elders, the boys are constantly met with disdain and aggression. Thus, their materially precarious circumstances seem to trouble them far less than realizing their lives are of minuscule importance to most people. In the end, not all of them will reach their final destination.

However, Mora, and co-writer Maria Camila Arias, also show Rá and the gang finding kindness in the arms of other individuals who, like them, have been deemed disposable by society. First, a transgender woman working as a hotel clerk in Medellín acts as a motherly figure, offering them a place to lick their wounds and an address to receive mail.

An early sequence at a rural brothel shows the boys each in a tight embrace with one of the middle-aged sex workers, many of whom lost their sons to the war. In that instance, they represent for one another a momentary cure for their respective voids. Playing with sound and its absence, Mora makes this encounter a nearly out-of-body experience. Time appears to slow down, allowing respite from the frenzied sequences of their daredevil acts on the highway that cinematographer David Gallego deftly captures.

Later, an elderly man, made to feel outcast since he survives alone on the margins, feeds and houses the teen travelers after they escape several landowners from the area who try to kidnap them. Those encounters replenish the boys’ spirits amid malnourishment and physical exhaustion, which they often fight by inhaling solvents or popping pills. While Mora exalts their child-like effervescence, the awful truths of their condition peak through.

Throughout their grueling odyssey, Gallego finds plenty of striking imagery conceived in part from the group’s interactions with the imposing natural beauty at hand from Medellín to the town of Nechí in northern Colombia. Yet at times, the most searing frames come from the boys’ street smarts. Take, for example, a moment early on when they throw rocks at the streetlights on the road until they stay in complete darkness. Dragging their machetes on the asphalt, they create sparks that briefly light up the night. Mora has explained the shot was not planned but a spontaneous reaction on her actors’ part.

Paired with Rá’s voiceover narration yearning for a reality where he and his friends can live free of judgment, Mora’s oneiric sensibilities remain present throughout the ordeal via the white horse that repeatedly guides them. Such otherworldliness even permeates an outburst of youthful exuberance to the tune of “Tren Al Sur,” a classic Spanish-language rock song. But for all the goodness inside them, there’s double the fury in their eyes against a world that dehumanizes them at every turn — making Nano a Black kid also denotes that, even within their collective marginalization, he still faces further mistreatment. All in all, Mora’s vision is extraordinary for its militant humanism.

There’s something troublingly poetic about how “The Kings of the World” might sadly share its protagonists’ fate of anonymity and underappreciation. Released earlier this month on Netflix with no fanfare, it’s likely destined to get lost in the unforgiving ways of the algorithm as it tries to carve a place for itself in an oversaturated landscape. Let this be your cue to prevent that from happening.

Grade: A-

“The Kings of the World” won the top prize at the 2022 San Sebastian Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix.

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