The young boys in La Playa D.C. may wander around somewhat aimlessly, and certainly hopelessly, in the ghettos of Bogotá, Colombia, but this could be a story borne out of any inner-city American project: poverty, drugs, violence, racism, broken families, sartorial swagger, and the metastasizing effects of fatherlessness. The film follows Tomas (Luis Carlos Guevara), a teenage Afro-Colombian barber’s apprentice searching for his drug-addicted little brother, Jairo (Andrés Murillo), a runaway whose abusive stepfather blames him for the disintegration of their family and who’s now an inept drug dealer who tends to use all of his dope instead of actually selling it. Tomas, who wears a hoodie and a poker face, walks through the streets of a city that doesn’t want him, eerily recalling the image of Trayvon Martin.
Tomas’s city isn’t, surprisingly, very boisterous. It’s as if filmmaker Juan Andrés Arango has purposefully taken out the audio and visual elements that could litter the frame so we can really watch the fragile young man’s circular trajectory (from nowhere to nowhere), the aesthetic simplicity of his hooded silhouette contrasting heavily with the chaos that bursts inside him. For Tomas, a barber’s hair clippers are a fortunate choice of instrument, allowing him to carve out amazing artwork on his customers’ heads. The sound of the clippers, at once muffled and acute, like an earthquake inside a flask, couldn’t be anything other than Tomas’s swallowed scream responding to the world. If he’s unsafe outdoors, he’s just as vulnerable indoors, chased by security guards at the mall, or humiliated by his failed paternal replacement.
There’s something of Ryan Fleck’s short film Gowanus, Brooklyn (later made, and refined, into Half Nelson) in La Playa D.C., namely in the young main character’s face, so seemingly devoid of any emotion, as if refusing to be readable to the passerby, as if too overcome by misery to know how to begin emoting it. As subtle as the actors’ faces are in Arango’s film, some of the dialogue and situations can feel like forcibly planted moments in the script in order to show “racism,” “alienation,” or a character’s “coming into his own.” The film only feels interesting when it focuses on looking at what the characters aren’t doing and listening to what they aren’t saying.