Social drama unfolds during train trip from Central to North America
Along with her father and her uncle, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) flees Honduras and heads north, with hopes of crossing into the United States and starting a new life in New Jersey. In Chiapas, Mexico, she crosses paths—fatefully and somewhat romantically—with Casper (Edgar Flores), a fledgling gang-banger who has desperate and violent reasons of his own for fleeing toward El Norte.
These two intense teenagers are the central figures in what is both a multicharacter social drama and a grimly ironic adventure of near-epic proportions. First-time filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga makes vivid use of the story’s ramshackle settings and grim situations as the two interwoven tales sprawl northward, with the characters hopping onto and off of freight trains through southeastern Mexico.
The perilous circumstances of illegal migrants loom as the film’s presiding concern, but Fukunaga lavishes far more elaborately detailed attention on the brutalities and bigotry of the Mexican gangs from which Casper and his lethally inclined younger brother emerge. Sayra’s story outlasts all the rest, but Casper, little brother Smiley, and a couple of tattooed gang leaders make the more indelible impressions.
Fukunaga stays true to the starkly melodramatic ironies of his characters’ circumstances, but there’s a touch of conventionally romantic sentiment leaking into the Casper-Sayra relationship, and the scenes of gang violence remain conventional and gruesome, even with the filmmaker’s ostensibly understated approach.
The end result is a brashly observant social document and an impressive directorial debut, but one that is also compromised in part by the shortcuts it takes with character and emotion.