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There is much strange beauty in the poverty and desperation captured by Sin Nombre, an evocative and impressive first feature from writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga tracing both the journey north taken by so many from Mexico and Central America and the gang violence that stunts the lives of the many others who stay behind.

The film begins with Casper (Edgar Flores), one of the countless teenagers absorbed into the brutal Mara Salvatrucha gang, looking out from his open doorway into an ethereal scene: Fallen leaves blanket the dirt path to his shack of a home, sunlight has turned them golden, trees form a canopy of calm above. That is the only peace Casper will see, and with the flick of his spent cigarette, you know that if nothing else, he understands that.

This thriller/love story is, in a way, a simple one, though Fukunaga plays many emotional notes before he is finished, with sentiment that is restrained rather than indulged. The title makes it clear that while the film will focus on a handful of characters, they represent legions; Sin Nombre - roughly translated, "the nameless" - is what Fukunaga saw scrawled on countless scraps of cardboard near the border, makeshift markers for those who died trying to make it across.

There seems little in Tapachula, Mexico, for boys like Casper other than submit or be killed by the soul-destroying gang culture. The initiation rite for Casper's 12-year-old friend Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) comes with a beating so violent it leaves him bloody and barely standing. But the seduction of belonging is clear as he smiles through tears at those who delivered the blows.

When the gang demands an allegiance that Casper ultimately cannot give, a series of events puts him alone, outcast, on the run and clinging to the top of a train headed for the U.S./Mexican border. Here his life intersects with Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), whose story gets equal time. She's Honduran and traveling with a father she barely knows who left long ago for America, building another life and creating another family there. His deportation has brought them together again.

Resentment and teenage rebellion drive her toward Casper. When they meet in the aftermath of a violent exchange, he sheds his gang name for Willy, the one his mother gave him, and begins to let go of the rest of that world as well. The director captures well the uncertainty and danger that follow Willy, Sayra and the other travelers everywhere. In some towns they pass through, people run alongside the train and throw them fruit and bread; in others, the crowds come armed with insults and rocks. There are patrols to outwit and for Willy, word of his flight has made it through the gang network ahead of him. They are waiting.

Along the way, a bond of trust builds between Willy and Sayra, and by this time you understand just how precious that is, almost in defiance of the rubble of pain, disappointment and hard times that surround them. Flores gives Willy a poignant strength, a quiet dignity and a knowing resignation that stays with you long after the movie has ended. Gaitan's Sayra is heartbreaking in her hope.

There is bitter and breathtaking truth in the story and in the storytelling, which won Fukunaga the directing and cinematography award in the dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival this year. He rode the trains for days himself before making the movie, and in Sin Nombre, he pulls you up there alongside him.

Sin Nombre

(Focus Features) Starring Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan, Kristyan Ferrer. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content. Time 96 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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