“Sin Nombre,” at its most fundamental level, is a film about uncertainty, with characters who aren’t always able to control what’ll happen to them next. Everyone here has desires and fears that dictate what they do, which leads to unpredictable events that affect everybody around them. That’s kind of a default when you’re dealing with a film about people coming to America, but even though the hero is a teen from Honduras who tries to immigrate illegally, keeping an eye out for Border Patrol is only the beginning of his problems – his most dangerous enemies are closer to him than he realizes.
The life of its hero, a teenager named Willy (Edgar Flores), is devoted to two things: His commitment to Mara Salvatrucha, a gang led by Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), and his secret relationship with a girlfriend named Martha (Diana Garcia). Willy (which is his real name, although his friends just call him El Casper) does what he can to make sure that their paths don’t coincide, ensuring his promise of loyalty for one and protection for the other, but it’s only a matter of time before they meet, with unfortunate results.
The movie also focuses on a teenage girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who wants to start a new life in America with her dad and uncle in tow. They sit with other immigrants on top of a train passing through Mexico, which is targeted by Willy’s gang during a robbery spree. The train robbery doesn’t seem like something that Willy would be a part of, but that scene opens the door to situations that are even more difficult for him, and by the end of the movie, the audience is just as surprised by his actions as he is.
“Sin Nombre” won two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, which is no surprise if you think about the elements of a successful Sundance film. Movies that pay attention to how their characters feel and think usually do pretty well when they play at indie film festivals, and the most memorable ones eventually get a limited release. That doesn’t seem like a very ambitious goal for movies like these, but the best ones always manage to find the audiences they deserve. In that light, even if “Sin Nombre” is ignored by mainstream audiences (and although there are occasional exceptions, foreign films usually are), it still has some pretty promising business ahead of it at art theaters.
What gives this movie its power is the fact that it doesn’t conceal the truth: It takes an honest and sobering look at the world these characters live in, and it suggests that a person’s destiny isn’t always in their hands. All the characters do is drift desperately from one episode to the next, with very little time to contemplate the emotions that drive their actions. It’s appropriate, then, that they behave in ways that we don’t always understand. It’s very hard for a movie to pull that off and still be credible, but the makers of “Sin Nombre” prove that it’s not impossible.