Metallic blues and grays dominate the color palette of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, the British writer-director’s fictional follow-up to her documentary The Arbor. It takes place in the same Yorkshire borough as that earlier film, and it’s similarly sympathetic yet clear-eyed in its examination of lumpenprole life at the precarious margins of postindustrial England. When hyperactive and scrappy Arbor (Conner Chapman) is expelled from school, he takes his exile in stride by wandering the streets and collecting scrap metal, dragging along his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), a gentler soul who has a way with the horses that haul the carts. Arbor’s entrepreneurship puts them on the radar of scrapyard owner Kitten (Sean Gilder), who’s introduced to us as an ax-wielding curmudgeon silhouetted by the early dawn, a giant king in this rag-and-bone world.
The film is in the social-realist mold, showing us the details of Arbor and Swifty’s fractured families, their discomfiture in the antiseptic school system, and the process of scavenging junk to add to the mountains of twisted metal lying behind Kitten’s gates. They collect pots and pans and smashed tricycles, but Arbor dreams of one big score: the “bright metal” copper wire in the core of high-tension power lines. Swifty cares less for the payout, but is enamored with the chance to ride one of Kitten’s trotting horses in a race; nevertheless, their bond is the key to the entire film. Barnard coaxes genuine performances out of her young leads; she’s attentive to their speech, to the melody of their dialect and the rhythm of their back-and-forths. The sentiments shared by the two are always clear, even when the dialogue isn’t.
That ear for language is paired with an eye for the landscape, and the film finds beauty even in such a seemingly dreary, economically depressed community. Often we return to a stretch of field that’s picturesque to the point of abstract timelessness, where horses graze under the shadow of nuclear cooling towers—or at least, there would be a shadow if the sun could punch through the thick cloud cover that casts this film in perpetual twilight. Against this backdrop, we’re witness to revelations and moral dilemmas and life-changing instants as the power lines drone continuously around Arbor and Swifty.
It’s a tale of refuse, both in terms of the collected junk and those doing the collecting on the edges of a society that no longer has use for them. The train tracks and power lines still run out here, but at least to the kids whom the system deems have no future, at the present such things are worth more broken and scrapped in piles on horse-drawn carts, while the rest of the world drives past. Barnard teases out those thematic parallels gently, with a nuance that allows us to contemplate such meaning without being overly didactic about the realities of life in this place. She provides a window into the struggles and tragedies, both great and small, which lie just outside our view.
Such struggles and tragedies also come to the forefront in a migration film like The Golden Cage, from Mexican writer-director Diego Quemada-Díez. It shares a title with an earlier 1987 film and an even earlier ballad, which points to the historical legacy of stories of northward migration and yet also underlines its present urgency. I attended a talk recently where a Latin-American sales agent exhorted filmmakers not to make any more migrant stories; to him they were getting played out and perhaps too difficult to sell. However, a film like this one serves as a counterexample, and a reminder that as long as such grand flows of people—and the conditions which drive those flows—persist in the social fabric of so many countries, there will always be worth something examining there.
Here, the youth of our Guatemalan protagonists is striking; they’re just kids and yet seem so isolated and unmoored, embarking on this journey ex nihilo. Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), an indigenous Tzotzil boy, wanders into the story to join the other protagonists: Sara (Karen Martínez), who disguises her gender on the road for her own protection, and Juan (Brandon López), who’s distrustful of the strange outsider. In the sudden start of the film, there’s no worth in or time for the past, but only for the present journey which takes them on the rails north through Mexico toward the U.S. There are the requisite perils of the police and armed gangs, of course; these kids are entering terra incognita, and suspense and tension comes from knowing that their journey will not be a smooth one. At times, the film bears a dangerously close resemblance to a guided tour with us as tourists and the stops on the itinerary as brushes with capture and death, and with the structure of traveling by rail giving the film the feeling of being on rails.
However, it’s saved from such simplicity by the time and space it gives to the ensemble cast and their relationships, and particularly the tentative position that Chauk occupies in relation to the group. Sara’s diplomatic attempts to break through the language barrier and Juan’s aggressive, antagonistic posture give us insight into their personalities and set up a dynamic that is shaped by the challenges that they face in their travels. Quemada-Díez certainly mines those challenges for all their horror and despair, but those scenes are anchored by an observational style that in part implicates us as witnesses, and reminds us that these terrors have their points of reference in real lives and real experiences. The fitful stops and starts and repetitions of their travels, and the long stretches of nothing before an explosive inversion of fortune, might pose a challenge to patience. But it’s precisely in that rhythm, far more than the specific details of any single scenario, that we might experience even a fraction of what it’s like to be on this journey with an uncertain destination.
We Are Mari Pepa provides a decidedly lighter snapshot of the lives of youth, though Samuel Kishi Leopo’s film about the travails of Guadalajara teenagers is certainly just as attentive to the details of adolescent experience—of a time when the simplest matters are invested with life-and-death importance and the realities of adult existence slowly and inexorably make their presence known. Sixteen-year-old Alex (Alejandro Gallardo) is a guitarist for the titular band, a punk-rockish outfit with exactly one song to their name, which makes entry into a Battle of the Bands competition (and its two-song requirement) somewhat difficult. As a whole they have more raw energy than actual talent, and their music brims with their juvenile obsessions; the ridiculous chorus to their song is “I wanna come on your face, Natasha,” made all the more laughable when Bolter (Arnold Ramirez) the vocalist has problems remembering the lyrics to their one and a half songs.
The freewheeling goofiness of the band’s rehearsals are the highlights of the film and contrast with the slow disintegration of the group via outside forces: Bassist Moy (Moises Galindo) gets a girlfriend who obliviously asks if they know how to play any songs by One Direction, while Rafa (Rafael Andrade Muñoz) the drummer is forced by his family to get a job and apply to college. These markers of passage into adulthood are universal enough to verge on cliché, but they feel real and new through Alex’s eyes. He’s the one member that puts real effort into the band, and the Ramones and Sex Pistols iconography plastered all over the walls of Alex’s room not only give insight into his musical genealogy, but display dreams and ambitions that are likely to remain unfulfilled. He ends up as the heart of the film, and the wordless scenes he shares with his grandmother (Petra Iñiguez Robles) serve as a measured counterpoint to the head-butting faux-macho bravado that permeates his encounters with the rest of the guys.
The film captures the energy of aimless adolescence with a loose and ambling story structure, with collections of vignettes and moments that develop a narrative arc, even if they take their time in getting there. Walking down the street, Alex and his friends are sidetracked by a homeless man’s story or by a pickup soccer game, and the film is interspersed with clips from Alex’s cheap digital camera. Those videos serve as a medium for fleeting memories, and yet the film never loses itself to nostalgia; though there are moments of melancholy, the transition towards adulthood is not treated as an irrevocable loss of innocence. Rather, like the structure of the film itself, it’s made up of a lot of interlocking pieces, some of which might not perfectly fit together, but in aggregate point toward something significant. In using a light touch with the material and his cast, Leopo has crafted a film imbued with the energy and sensibilities of rock and roll, even if the band can barely play it.
AFI Fest runs from November 7—14.