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  Sin Nombre

Starring: Paula Gaitan, Edgar Flores, Kristian Ferrer, Tenoch Huerto

Directed by: Cary Fukunaga

Produced by: Amy Kaufman

Written by: Cary Fukunaga

Distributor: Focus Features

As seen at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival:

     Cary Fukunaga’s first feature, Sin Nombre, captures the grit and brutality of life in Latin America far more authentically than this decade’s overrated critical darlings on the subject, Maria Full of Grace and City of God. Whereas those films sacrificed realism by indulging in overwrought stylistic techniques to convey their messages, Fukunaga’s film uses the drama of a traditional narrative arc to organically bring out the harsh realism of the material.

     Sin Nombre interlocks two topical stories: that of a teenage Honduran girl’s treacherous trek to illegally immigrate to the United States and that of a young man running from the Mexican gang he rebels against. She’s Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), and she and her family are riding atop the freight train that Willy A.K.A. “El Casper” (Edgar Flores) has been assigned to pillage. The only problem: he’s transfixed by her and, already seeking a way out of his violent thug life, decides he’ll merely ride away from the past. If only things were that simple.

     The way the various elements of the film balance drama and realism is its greatest asset. While Sin Nombre is as suspenseful as any cat-and-mouse story—Sayra and Willy become better and better friends as the gang gets closer and closer to catching him—it also provides all the insight of a documentary on immigrant journeys and gang activity south of the border. These are topics of endless discussion in the American political sphere and yet most Americans actually know very little about them. Early on in the film, Sayra’s father tells her that half of the train-riders will die on the way to the United States. The film depicts the journey in sobering detail, and yet it commendably stops short of becoming a political polemic, as was the case with Maria Full of Grace. In fact, the script fully recognizes that illegal immigration contributes to violent crime in the U.S.: running after him, Willy’s former gang members yell that they have connections in Los Angeles who will kill him if they fail to do so. Dramatized as it is, this passage is terrifyingly real because the gang is based off of an actual group called Mara Salvatrucha.

     Perhaps the film’s unique, balanced style can be attributed to the fact that writer/director Fukunaga is American and made the picture thinking of U.S. audiences. While never preachy or naïve, Fukunaga goes to incredible lengths to enlighten the viewer on these topics, which is something an accustomed native filmmaker might not have done. Not to mention, he implements a distinctly American sense of drama, which works harmoniously with the story because it’s never overdone. However, my praise for Fukunaga’s work should not keep me from mentioning the great, raw performances from young actors Gaitan and Flores or the beautiful, lush cinematography from D.P. Adriano Goldman. Nearly every facet of Sin Nombre, one of 2009’s first must-sees, is as informative as it is intense.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 3.21.2009

Screened on: 3.15.2009 at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX.


Sin Nombre is rated R and runs 96 minutes.

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