Mexican film “Los Lobos”, which won Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus International Jury in addition to the Peace Film Award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in last year, is a modest but undeniably extraordinary film mainly revolving around the unadulterated viewpoint of two little boys of an emigrant worker in US. While never overlooking the harsh environment surrounding its two young heroes, the movie sometimes rolls along with their hope and imagination in its own distinctive way, and the overall result is quite poignant to say the least.
At the beginning, the movie calmly observes the long journey of Lucía (Martha Reyes Arias) and her two young sons across the Mexico-US border. Unlike many other illegal Latino immigrants, they easily cross the border as ‘tourists’ and then arrive in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but their harsh reality soon becomes quite evident to us. Because she is not a legitimate emigrant, Lucía has no choice but to do several menial jobs every day for earning enough money for her family, and her two sons Max (Maximiliano Nájar Márquez) and Leo (Leonardo Nájar Márquez) accordingly are left alone during most of daytime in their current staying place, a small shabby apartment which demands some cleaning work right from their very first day.
While they try to spend their free time alone in the apartment during their mother’s absence, Max and Leo cannot help but feel suffocated as limited by a number of rules imposed on them by their mother. Lucía firmly emphasizes to them that they must get along with well with each other in addition to keeping their current residence clean as usual, and, above all, she absolutely forbids them to go outside as long as they are not under emergency.
Lucía also promises to them that she will someday take them to the Disney park, so Max and Leo begin to learn a bit of English as required, but then they quickly get bored after memorizing a certain broken sentence which may be useful if they ever go to the Disney park. As their mother is more frequently absent or tired due to her increasing worktime, they come to throw themselves into their boundless imagination, and, as imagining themselves as two young brave ninja wolves fighting against the world, they draw some crude drawings, which become the basis of the occasional animation scenes in the film.
After carefully establishing its three main character’s isolated circumstance, the movie slowly follows Max and Leo’s growing interest toward the world outside. As watching several Latino American kids in the neighborhood, they cannot help but envy the freedom enjoyed by those boys outside, and, not so surprisingly, they soon come to break their mother’s No.1 rule. When they later happen to encounter their Chinese landlady, she turns out to be more generous than expected, and they get to know more about her and her ailing husband as spending some time with them.
Of course, there subsequently come several problems to Lucía and her sons later in the story, but the screenplay by director/co-producer/co-writer Samuel Kishi, who also edited the film with Yordi Capó and Carlos Espinoza, and his co-writers Luis Briones and Sofía Gómez-Córdova thankfully avoids the pitfall of gratuitous melodrama, and the movie keeps maintaining its calm realistic tone while occasionally focusing on various human figures in its main background. It is apparent that many of them struggle to live with poverty day by day, and the movie subtly lets us reflect more on their despairing human conditions without any cheap sympathy or sentimentalism.
Furthermore, what is achieved on the screen by Kishi and his crew members is seemingly plain but superb enough to engage and touch us. While cinematographer Octavio Arauz often gives us the small but precious moments of visual poetry to be admired, Kishi’s brother Kenji Kishi provides a sparse but effective score, and it is particularly lovely during those simple but charming animation scenes in the film.
Kishi also draws the strong performances from his three lead performers. While Martha Reyes Arias steadily holds the ground as demanded, Maximiliano Nájar Márquez and Leonardo Nájar Márquez, who are real brothers, are effortless in their dynamic interactions on the screen, and they are terrific whenever they share the screen with Arias. As a sort of wolf pack as reflected by the very title of the movie (It means “The Wolves” in English), Lucía and her two boys always come to stick together no matter what happens to them, and Arias and the Márquez brothers convey well to us the strong familial bond among their characters throughout the film.
As already pointed out by many other critics, “Los Lobos” deserves to be compared to other similar recent notable films such as Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (2017) and Jeremiah Zagar’s “We the Animals” (2018). Like these two excellent films, the movie understands and empathize well with its young main characters while deftly balancing itself between hard reality and tentative optimism, and it surely earns its hopeful finale thanks to the thoughtful and sensitive direction of Kishi, who previously made a feature film debut with “We Are Mari Pepa” (2013) after directing several short films. As far as I can see from this second feature film of this, he is a talented filmmaker with considerable potential, and it will surely be interesting to see how much he will advance during next several years.