Trash (2014) ☆☆(2/4) : Brazilian Slumdogs, so to speak

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Somewhere between “City of God” (2002) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “Trash” has right elements required for its story to tell, but it somehow feels flaccid and uneven in its execution. The movie wants to take us to the bottom of the society where its young heroes struggle to survive along with many other people in poverty, and it is successful to some degrees in that aspect, but it never accumulates enough momentum necessary to hold our interest. Besides its thin characterization and plodding narrative, the movie is riddled with predictable and contrived elements to distract your viewing experience, and the bland and tedious handling of a mystery supposed to drive its plot does not help much either.

For the people living in a slum area near some landfill outside Rio de Janeiro, their work hour begins with the arrival of dump trucks full of the garbage from the city. Whether it is an empty plastic bottle or an old video game, nothing is too valueless to scavenge for these people, because they cannot afford to lose any chance to earn more in their life. Watching them rummaging through heaps of thrash, I was reminded of Oscar-nominated documentary film “Waste Land”, which memorably shows the low class life revolving around a landfill not so different from the one shown in “Trash”.

On one day, Raphael (Rickson Teves), one of street-smart kids living in this slum neighborhood, happens to find a wallet during his another usual scavenging hour, and he and his friend Gardo (Eudardo Luis) come to see that it is more valuable than it seemed at first. Not long after his discovery, the police arrive in the landfill to search for the very wallet in question, and Raphael decides that they should hide the wallet for a while to get a bigger reward. Raphael and Gardo go to their friend Rat (Gabriel Weinstein), and Rat agrees to keep the wallet in his sewer shelter on the condition of having his own share in the reward they will get later.

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And then Raphael becomes curious about several things inside the wallet besides the money they quickly spent. There is a coin locker key, and there are also the other objects which may also be the clues to something valuable. Fortunately, Rat knows where the key comes from, and that is the first step of their adventure, which is soon followed by the appearance of another important clue for them. Watching them going around several places, you may notice the similarity to the director Stephen Daldry’s previous work “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011), which is about a young precocious kid’s journey around many different people and places in New York through the clues left to him by his diseased father.

We already have a pretty good idea about what they may discover at the end of their journey, and that accordingly means we are always two or three steps ahead of the boys, if not the plot. That key belongs to José Angelo (Wagner Moura), and, as shown during the opening part, Angelo was about to initiate a secret plan before he is captured and then killed. He has been associated with a powerful and corrupt politician named Santos (Stepan Nercessian), and Santos needs to retrieve something which Angelo managed to snatch and hide from Santos before his death. The police are ready to do anything as ordered from Santos, and so is Detective Gonz (Selton Mello), a vicious cop who will get his job done by any means necessary.

Gonz becomes very suspicious about Raphael right from their first encounter, and that leads to the darkest moment in the film which is also quite disturbing to watch for the brutal and cruel violence inflicted on our helpless young hero. This scene does intend to make us disturbed, and it is effective for its purpose, but I instead became more conscious of the strings pulled behind it – especially when it goes back and forth between Raphael’s grim ordeal and the frustration experienced by the other characters searching for him.

trash03That could have been forgivable or acceptable if Daldry and his screenplay writer Richard Curtis, who adapted Andy Mulligan’s novel with the same name, had handled their story and characters well enough to engage us. While the local background and atmosphere are captured well on the screen by the cinematographer Adriano Goldman, the movie curiously lacks the sense of urgency or tension as a thriller, and it also fails to generate the substantial amount of suspense during a number of chase sequences which are mediocre and unexciting to say the least. The score by Antônio Pinto is vibrant and spirited as demanded, but it sounds like it is for something more exciting than what is tediously presented on the screen.

Furthermore, the plot suffers from many contrivances and coincidences which are sometimes too much to be accepted. I may accept how Father Julliard (Martin Sheen) and Sister Olivia (Rooney Olivia), two good Americans who really care about our young heroes and others in the slum neighborhood, are rather oblivious to what is going on behind their back for a while. I may also have no problem with how Detective Gonz is no more than a cardboard villain who conveniently appears whenever the story needs his creepy villainy. But there is no way I can possibly believe a certain revelation around the climax. I will not go into details about that, but let’s say it made me question again the practicality of Angelo’s plan, which has too many plot holes in itself to be believed.

trash05The main actors try their best, but their performances are often arrested by the flawed screenplay, and their characters feel more like the cogs inside plot machinery as a result. While young actors Rickson Teves, Eduardo Luis, and Gabriel Weinstein are as natural and lively as we can expect from them, they are sometimes forced to handle some unconvincing moments in the film, and I have a doubt on whether their occasional video scenes are really necessary besides 1) providing expository interludes and 2) assuring us that they will be all right in the end. In case of their adult co-stars, Martin Sheen, Rooney Mara, Wagner Moura, and Selton Mello are wasted in their thankless roles, but at least they did their jobs as required while humbly allowing the young actors to take the center in the film.

Compared to “City of God” and “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Trash” is a disappointing work that pales into insignificance in many aspects. It is far behind that gritty, crackling intensity shown in “City of God”, and it also fails to reach to the level of that dizzy, exuberant spirit of “Slumdog Millionaire”, which is a much better crowd-pleasing film in comparison. Both “City of God” and “Slumdog Millionaire” brim with the undeniably palpable sense of life and reality in each own way, but, sadly, the same thing cannot be said about “Trash”, which sincerely tries but fails in the end without much impression to leave behind.

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