Strangers on a train

Sin Nombre

Traveling on a train—literally.

Traveling on a train—literally.

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Rated 4.0

They meet on a train, heading north. She’s on the way to a family reunion; he’s with the boss on a business trip. They’re obviously from different worlds. Meant for each other, of course, but it’s complicated. It always is.

And in Sin Nombre, it’s more so. For starters, this reunion of hers is both illegal and unlikely, and this business of his has proven lethal to relationships. Also, by “on a train,” I mean literally, on its roof. None of these passengers should be here at all, because it’s not a passenger train. And the north to which they’re heading is the border of the United States. So when the headstrong Honduran teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and the gloomy Mexican gangster Casper (Edgar Flores) finally do meet, it isn’t exactly cute.

It is, however, one auspicious moment in one young filmmaker’s wholly auspicious feature debut. The 31-year-old Oakland native writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who won a Student Academy Award in 2005 for another (shorter) drama of imperiled Central American immigrants, still wears his conscience on his sleeve, still with no apparent worry that it will cramp his very steady hand. Fukunaga might have played things safer in the first-feature game by settling for basic angsty-urbanite drama or comedic light romance—and, for that matter, by shooting his movie in English with at least a few actors of passing familiarity to American audiences. But instead he went starless, in Spanish, borrowing from Westerns, noir thrillers and mob movies whose habit is to wonder aloud whether the promised land’s promises ever really can come true. In the case of Sin Nombre (“Nameless”), just getting there at all is hard enough to begin with.

Sayra’s on that train because her father (Gerardo Taracena) has a new family waiting for them in New Jersey. But she doesn’t know those people, and isn’t sure she wants to go. She hasn’t seen her father for years, actually, and isn’t wrong to wonder whether he’d have come back for her at all if he hadn’t been deported. Regardless, she has no choice now but to join him, and her uncle (Guillermo Villegas), on their harrowing journey—risking exposure to brutal weather, border patrol and banditry from the Mara Salvatrucha brotherhood, to which Casper belongs.

He’s feeling ambivalent about his situation, too. Gang life has hardened Casper, for sure, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be shaken. Lately he’s just lost a girlfriend (Diana Garcia), and isn’t wrong to wonder whether serving his frighteningly bad-ass boss, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), and protecting his eager 12-year-old recruit, Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), might be mutually exclusive.

At first, Smiley doesn’t see the ominous implication in Lil Mago’s initiatory assurance that “Wherever you go, there’ll be someone to take care of you.” Then Casper proves it, by betraying his brethren on Sayra’s behalf. Inevitably, it will fall to Smiley to try and hunt him down.

Fukunaga made a point of spending time on one of those trains himself, just to be sure he understood how precarious it is up there. That might register as a stunt, except it seems more a matter of self-respect than self-congratulation. Guarding against falsity isn’t just for documentaries, and it’s to this movie’s great advantage that its depiction seems more experiential than political.

What Sin Nombre has that’s particularly impressive for a debut is a good sense of proportions. Just as there’s equal space in the narrative for the desperate and the driven, there’s also a balance in the atmosphere between sensitivity and brutality—in the nimbly played scenes of gang rituals, yes, but also in the fleeting, secondary moments: Some Mexican townspeople throw fruit to the train riders, others throw rocks at them. It’s also there in Adriano Goldman’s excellent cinematography, equally attentive to details both ugly and beautiful.

This sense of equilibrium even carries over to Fukunaga’s crafty integration of professional and nonpro actors. Flores, for one, is a newcomer, and his lack of actorly affectation helps make the introspective Casper compelling—just as telenovela veteran Gaitan’s precision suits Sayra’s measured curiosity about him.

Their time together has the classic urgency of movie fate, but also a new kind of complication. It’s just what’s needed to establish a whiff of romance in the air under these sallow skies.