One of the more fascinating and gut-wrenching films at this year's festival, Sin Nombre managed to snag a couple of awards (Best Director and Best Cinematography in U.S. Dramatic Competition) before skipping town with a writer-director who's sure to become Hollywood's next great filmmaker. The film, while frequently heartbreaking to watch, also comes with its own unbelievable story. Focus Features became involved early on based solely on its script, and then proceeded to provide financing to a first-time feature director for a film that was entirely in Spanish and featured some main actors that had never been in a movie before. The good news for Focus is their gamble paid off, and Sin Nombre is easily one of the best films of 2009 so far.
Essentially a road trip thriller with a love story mixed in, Sin Nombre tracks the fate of three teenagers traveling through Mexico on their way toward the U.S. border. Sayla (Paulina Gaitan) is living a hard life in Honduras when her father and uncle decide it's time for the three of them to attempt to cross over into the United States and meet up with dad's "other family" in New Jersey -- full of brothers and sisters her pop fathered before he was caught and deported. But the journey is a tough one: First the trio must cross a river into Mexico, and then hop a train -- by riding on its roof -- for a three-week journey to the border. Before the train arrives, Sayla's father tells her that half the people traveling with them (100-200) will either die or be caught by border police and sent back home. Nevertheless, the promise of a better life on the other side is too appetizing to ignore.
While Sayla begins her long trip through Mexico, Mara Salvatrucha gang members Casper and Smiley have found themselves in trouble ... again. Casper is older and wiser, acting as sort of a mentor to the 12-year-old Smiley, while the latter goes about his gang initiation. But Casper has fallen in love with a girl from another town, and instead of following his gang leader's instructions each day, he instead heads off to be with her (and tells Smiley to keep a lid on it). Unfortunately for Casper, though, it doesn't take long before his new romance gig is interrupted -- and when a horrific accident leads to the violent murder of a "Mara" leader at the hands of Casper (who was defending a female stranger at the time), he orders Smiley to go home before hopping the same train Sayla is on ... to wait for the other gang members to catch up and eventually kill him.
That female stranger, however, turned out to be Sayla, and while her family warns her to stay far away from the lone, despondent gang member riding just up ahead, she can't help but find herself quite taken by the man who just saved her life. Meanwhile, Smiley has returned home to find a thoroughly pissed off group of "Mara" members -- all of whom want Casper found and killed immediately. And with his mentor now out of the picture, little Smiley decides to use what he's learned and volunteer for the bold task of tracking down the wanted man and killing Casper himself.
Thus begins a dangerous game of cat and mouse, with Casper doing everything he can to keep Sayla away from him while he dodges gang members left and right, and Sayla doing everything she can to stand by her new man. Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga expertly captures the lush, colorful landscapes of Mexico while injecting the harsh realities hundreds of poor, scuffed-up Mexicans face each year as they risk their lives in an attempt to provide a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Fukunaga's Mexico almost feels like a documentary at times; it's that real. Most of this is due to long, exhausting research on his part -- visiting and casting within the small towns of Honduras, while literally riding the rooftops of these same trains in order to truly capture the look, the feel and the hardships.
The performances are also terrific, with each non-actor tapping into the world outside their window and inside their hearts in order to accurately portray people who aren't too far removed from themselves -- evoking the sort of sadness in their eyes that only comes from experience. With Sin Nombre, Fukunaga has crafted the sort of too-real-it-hurts story that you simply have to enjoy on the big screen in order to feel the film's beautiful loneliness and share its brilliance with those you care most about. Focus Features will most likely throw this into theaters this March, and you bet we'll be back to tell you exactly where and when you can see it.