Based and filmed in Mexico with Spanish as the spoken language, Sin Nombre weaves together the lives of Willy (Edgar Flores), a young gangster who is seemingly growing disillusioned with the violence and excess of gang-life, and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) a young Honduran girl who after meeting her estranged father attempts to cross the border into Texas for hope of a better life in America.
Willy, (whose gang name is “El Casper”) is seen at the beginning of the film recruiting a young neighborhood boy into the local gang. After a violent initiation the boy is dubbed “El Smiley”, and is embraced into the gang’s inner family. Eventually we see that Willy has fallen in love with a local girl named Martha (Diana Garcia), which has caused him to become increasingly disinterested to the gang’s activities; much to the irritation of the gang’s leader “Lil Mago” (Tenoch Huerta). Sayra, a teenager, has only just met her father and is immediately told that it would be best for her to journey with him to America, where she has family waiting for her. Sayra holds obvious resentment for her father because of his absence in her life, but due to the hectic nature of their trip she never has an opportunity to express her feelings to him. Without releasing the plot twists that are vital to the enjoyment of the film, Willy is eventually confronted by his gang leader for his distant behavior. The confrontation ends violently causing Willy to become emotionally broken. Willy, along with El Smiley and Lil Mago, is sent on a mission to rob the passengers on a local train, a train carrying Sayra and her father. After Sayra is assaulted Willy, in an attempt to protect her, commits an act which labels him “marked for death” by the other gang members. Willy is treated with scorn by the other passengers because of his gang affiliation, but Sayra (despite her father’s warnings) is intrigued by him and forms an emotional connection. The main conflict of the film is established as Willy is running from the guns of his former gang, while Sayra is attempting avoid the border authorities due to the fact that she and her family are trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Through suspense, deep drama, and moments of contemplation, we see two characters from two different worlds form an emotional bond as they both try to free themselves from a past that has left them broken, alone, confused.
From the films’ exposition it is established that it will hold nothing back in it’s depiction of the violence and depravity that exist in Mexican gang-life. Despite its graphic depiction of violence the film does not glorify gangsters, the film rather displays the impoverished and desperate conditions that so frequently harvest the growth of violence and the mentality that urge young men and women to associate with gangs. The character of Smiley is the film’s example of this mentality, a poor young boy, who endures a violent initiation in order to belong to a group, to gain a sense of identity and protection and more importantly a sense of self worth. Willy initiates Smiley into the gang while at the same time questioning his own commitment to the gang, showing the continuous cycle of fear and confusion that plagues the youth in lower class Mexico. As the film transitions to Sayra’s story we are given an insight into the perilous and deadly journey that many immigrants make in an attempt to cross into the U.S. border. Unfortunately the film does not delve deep enough into the specific motivation for Sayra’s father’s insistence on moving to America, which makes these characters generic and stereotypical Mexican immigrants. Willy’s story can stand on its own and his characters internal conflicts are evident, unlike Sayra who eventually becomes a product of Willy’s circumstances, which muddles whatever message the director was attempting to send through her.
The performances by the actors are all top notch particularly those of the leads; Edgar Flores and Paulina Gaitan. There developing relationship is the driving force of the film and their emotional chemistry proves to provide an excellent contrast to the films darker and more violent moments. As stated earlier the character of Sayra feeds mostly off of the emotions of Willy and her decisive character arch is motivated by the desperate situation that Willy finds himself in. Whether this was the director’s way of showing the another instance of “similarity despite social difference” or if it was simply because of the open and generic view that Americans have on immigrants, I still felt unsatisfied in the development of Sayra’s character and her ultimate change seemed to contradict the narrative progression that was established at the beginning of the film.
The film contains expert cinematography and art direction, the former of which earned honors at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is also well paced and provides an excellent balance of suspense, action, and drama which combines for an experience that is visually enticing as well as emotionally touching. With his debut feature, Fukanaga has crafted a near perfect picture of the harsh and deadly world that many lower class youths have to endure and the physical and emotional journey that they must travel in order to have any hopes of survival.
Weak: 1 Star Average: 2 Stars Good: 3 Stars Very Good: 4 Stars Excellent: 5 Stars