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Sin Nombre

An Auspicious Filmmaking Debut

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Writer-director Cary Fukunaga’s (Victoria para chino) feature-length filmmaking debut, Sin Nombre (“Without a name” or “Nameless”), arrives in movie theaters this weekend with high, perhaps impossibly high expectations. The film, one-part crime drama and one-part immigration drama, won the Directing Award and the Excellence in Cinematography Award only two months ago at the Sundance Film Festival.

Impressive on almost every level, including direction, cinematography, editing, screenplay, and performances (by a mostly young, non-professional cast), Sin Nombre maps out the economic, social, and personal struggles of the illegal Central American immigrants who cross into the United States every year from Mexico.

Sin Nombre interweaves the stories of Willy, aka Casper (Edgar Flores), a Mexican gangbanger and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran girl passing through Mexico with her father and uncle on their way to the United States. Casper belongs to the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Chiapas (southern Mexico). When Casper sneaks off to spend time with his girlfriend, Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), he risks the wrath of the gang’s leaders, Sol (Luis Fernando Peña) and his second-in-command, the heavily tattooed Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta). Casper also mentors one of Mara Salvatrucha’s newest recruits, a fatherless, twelve-year old, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer).

For Sayra, the absence of economic opportunities and social immobility convince her to join her estranged father and uncle. Sayra’s father has another family in the United States, in New Jersey to be exact. Deported back to Honduras, Sayra’s father decides to return to the U.S. with Sayra and his brother. Returning to the U.S. with Sayra offers her father the chance to reconcile with her, as well as redeem himself for abandoning her years ago in Honduras. For Sayra, her father, her uncle, and hundreds of other Central Americans, the journey through Mexico, first on foot and then on a train, comes with its own share of risks: the Mexican gangs that prey on the transient immigrants.

With its mix of gritty urban drama (think American Me) and immigration drama (think El Norte), Sin Nombre offers stark, bleak answers to the economic realities present in Central and South America. For the poorest of the poor, where access to education, medicine, housing, and food are extremely limited, joining a local gang or attempting to immigrate to the fabled “land of opportunity” are the only avenues available. Each choice has its profoundly personal risks.

Remarkably for a film shot on a tight budget with a mix of actors from different backgrounds and differing levels of professional experience, there isn’t an off-key performance in Sin Nombre. As Casper, the Honduran-born Flores, making his feature-length debut, gives a surprisingly nuanced performance. His evolution from amoral gangbanger to a conscience-stricken teenager motivated by compassion feels raw and authentic. Credit, of course, belongs to Fukunaga as a writer, for creating a non-clichéd character in Casper, and as a director, for guiding Flores’ performance through a dynamic range of emotions.

As Sayra, Gaitan gives a subdued, but always watchable performance. Unfortunately, she’s undermined on several occasions by an underwritten role, especially late in the film. When we meet Sayra, she’s having a conversation with her uncle about her father, her non-existent future in Honduras, and joining her father and uncle on the trip north. We learn almost nothing about her life before that scene. Fukunaga digs deeper when it comes to Casper’s life as a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, partly because we can see Casper in Smiley’s compressed transition from a 12-year old boy to an amoral, fiercely loyal gangbanger.