Paulina Gaitán and Édgar Flores, in 'Sin Nombre'

Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
(2009, R, 96 min)
★ ★ ★

There’s a good documentary in here. As it is it’s a good fiction film, but a documentary would be more edifying. The issue here is illegal immigration, and watching the details of a family’s journey from Honduras to the Texas border in Sin Nombre — intercut with a melodrama about a Mexican gang, but more on that later — I was struck that the American discussion of illegal immigration is the wrong one. There’s been talk of building a wall, deporting illegals, giving them amnesty, denying them health care benefits (we know where Congressman Joe Wilson stands). Now it seems to me that this manner of discussion amounts to closing the barn door after the horses are out. Watching the film I thought, the problem of immigration isn’t at the border, it’s between them. What is it about American, Mexican, and Central American society that makes this harrowing, Herculean, and illegal journey the path of least resistance for those who wish to emigrate? What are our problems as nations that necessitate such journeys for the poor?

I’m going off-topic here. The film isn’t a political tract and shouldn’t be, though I wish it had spent more time on the details of immigration than on its more conventional gang saga. But the arduous journey is taken as such a matter of course — and the DVD commentary by writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga indicates knowledge from firsthand research to support his film’s authenticity — that I have to wonder how it got that way.

The film opens in Southern Mexico with Casper (Édgar Flores), a teenage gang member who takes under his wing a child, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), who wants to join up. Elsewhere, in Honduras, young Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) prepares to travel north with her father, who was recently deported from the United States, where he has a second family. (What has become of Sayra’s mother was unclear to me in her expository early scenes; she has likely passed away.)

Casper and Sayra will cross paths on the train that will bring her from Southern Mexico to Texas, after tragic events cause a rift between Casper and his gang. They form an unlikely bond, as the story goes. From this point forward, the narrative holds few surprises, though it is effective, thanks in large part to the natural performances of Flores and Gaitán.

The best scenes show the details of the migrants’ passage: the treacherous riding atop freight-train cars; the group of passers-by who throw food to the travelers, followed by a group that throws rocks; the dodging of border patrols; the crossing of rivers. When one character is caught by the authorities and returned to Honduras, we see him setting out again, unabated. And so it goes. If at first you don’t succeed …