Cary Fukunaga is the son of a Japanese father and Swedish mother, born in the United States, a graduate of universities in California, New York, and France, and now the writer and director of “Sin Nombre,” which was filmed in Mexico with Spanish-speaking actors. “Sin Nombre” is about immigration, which seems fitting, but it runs deeper than that. Its protagonist is a young man who’s trying to do the right thing after doing too many wrong things. Even as we sense the futility of his mission, we admire his courage for attempting it.
There are two stories in “Sin Nombre” that come together at the halfway point. The first concerns Willy (Edgar Flores), a relatively new member of the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang (which really exists) in the barrios of southern Mexico. Willy, a teenager, has a Romeo-and-Juliet romance, complete with balcony-climbing, with a nice girl named Martha (Diana Garcia), whose major defect in the eyes of the Mara Salvatrucha is that she’s from a neighborhood that falls under a rival gang’s jurisdiction. For this reason, Willy must keep their relationship secret. He’s tutoring a new inductee, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), who can’t be older than about 12, and gets him to keep quiet, too.
The other story begins in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where a teenage girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is trying to emigrate to the United States with her father and uncle. (Dad made it to New Jersey years ago and has now come back for her.) The trip involves riding on the tops of trains with dozens of other immigrants, passing through Guatemala and into Mexico, and from there north to Texas.
It’s in southern Mexico that Sayra’s path intersects with Willy’s, when a party of Mara Salvatrucha members ambushes the train to rob the immigrants. Willy, already on thin ice with the gang’s leader, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), rediscovers his conscience, shifts his alliances, and finds himself on the wrong side of a quarrel with his former compatriots.
Fukunaga expertly shapes a variety of elements — gangland thriller, immigration drama, social commentary — into a rich, compelling story about redemption. To the vast throng of people (the film’s title means “nameless”) who try to come here every year, America represents hope, the potential for a better life. Willy and Sayra have different reasons for emigrating; one is running from, one is running to. But both look to America as a place where they can start over.
Fukunaga’s twin areas of study, film and political science, are brought to bear in his subtly effective screenplay, and in the way he brings it to life. A continuous shot of Smiley being introduced to the members of Mara Salvatrucha calls to mind the same scenario in “Goodfellas,” while parallel scenes showing people’s opposite opinions of immigrants — throwing fruit to them in one, throwing rocks at them in another — is a marvelously efficient way of conveying information visually. The fact that the film’s conclusion is inevitable does not reduce its impact when it arrives. Fukunaga is an assured, capable storyteller, and “Sin Nombre” suggests the work of an exciting new talent.
B+ (1 hr. 36 min.; Spanish with subtitles; )