“Sin Nombre” is at once subtle and intense, familiar but refreshing, intimate even as it tells a story untold numbers have endured.
There’s great inherent drama in this tale of Central Americans struggling to make their way to the United States, but writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga never amps it up. His tone is so assured throughout, you’d never guess this is his feature debut.
“Sin Nombre,” which means “nameless” in Spanish, feels authentic through and through. Fukunaga spent time riding the same trains as these travelers, and the details of their hardships find their way into the script with powerful simplicity.
He follows two teenagers whose paths will cross on a train track. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) has reconnected with her estranged father and decides to travel with him and her uncle north from Honduras, across the river from Guatemala and up through Mexico with the eventual destination of New Jersey. Meanwhile, Casper (Edgar Flores), aka Willy, is establishing himself in the Mara Salvatrucha gang of Tapachula, Mexico. He’s also trying to hide his steamy relationship with the beautiful Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), who will be viewed as a threat to the brotherhood.
When group leader Lil’ Mago (the fearsome and elaborately tattooed Tenoch Huerta Mejia) forces Casper and 12-year-old recruit Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) to help him rob the train Sayra and her family are riding on, both teens find themselves thrown together in greater danger than they ever were independently. (Flores, who plays a Mexican, is Honduran, and Gaitan, who plays a Honduran, is Mexican.)
The violence is harrowing (Martha Marlene’s fate is especially ugly) and Fukunaga doesn’t shy away from the squalor that permeates each rundown town that crops up along the train’s route. But he also mixes in some unexpectedly beautiful vistas (the striking work of cinematographer Adriano Goldman), a brief respite from the terrors that abound. The train is such a formidable force, it’s practically a character itself – arriving as it does in the dead of night, all dark rumbling and blinding light, sending the immigrants scrambling to hop on, then hold on precariously as they perch atop the roof.
Both lead actors nicely underplay their roles – Gaitan has a deceptively placid presence reminiscent of Catalina Sandino Moreno in her breakthrough role in “Maria Full of Grace” – while Huerta Mejia, as the Mara capo, provides a startling mix of intimidation and charisma. As Smiley, the precocious Ferrer is on the receiving end of some of the most brutal beatings upon initiation to the gang, but he’s also not afraid to dole out the pain, too.
Fukunaga’s characters don’t always make the right decisions, but they make believable ones in the heat of battle. With vivid, unflinching details, he finds a new angle on a story of sacrifice and peril you’ve heard countless times before.
“Sin Nombre,” a Focus Features release, is rated R for violence, language and some sexual content. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 95 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.