The frustrations of poverty meet the lure of technology in this efficient combination of action comedy and edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, which is directed by newcomers Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori and set in Asuncion, Paraguay, in 2005. Most of the action transpires in a sprawling municipal market, home to denizens ranging from cooks to mobsters to stray cats, and conducive to sizzling chase scenes in serpentine alleys.
Victor (Celso Franco), a 17-year-old goods-cart transporter, is transfixed by displays of video cams and TVs and dreams of seeing his face, movie-star style, up on screen. Hoping to buy the cellphone that his kitchen-worker sister, Tamara (Nelly Davalos), hopes to sell, Victor accepts a $100 job from a sinister butcher.
His instructions: Transport seven wooden boxes, contents unspecified, away from the premises so that police, conducting a crime crackdown, won’t find them. After the cops leave, Victor must bring the boxes back.
Snags occur, of course. Victor, accompanied by persistent pal Liz (Lali Gonzalez), is pursued by Nelson (Victor Sosa), a dangerous rival transporter. Kidnappers, gangsters, more cops, a thief, a gas explosion and the discovery of what’s in the boxes (it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that it isn’t Girl Scout cookies) intensify his predicament.
As with many a thriller, the movie contains phony devices — a hard-to-buy coincidence, for starters. Liz, with her frenemy antics, gets annoying.
The stylized sensory elements, heightened colors, pulsating music and acrobatic camerawork border on excessive and threaten to upstage the human story.
Fortunately, however, Schembori and Maneglia, the latter of whom wrote the screenplay, don’t let that happen. They’ve made an exhilaratingly satisfying thriller that contains top-notch action — a wheelbarrow chase is particularly memorable — along with crisp and cohesive storytelling.
Additional merits include smart, dark humor, affecting emotion, and observant social content.
Juggling about a dozen significant characters and plot streams, the filmmakers keeps the drama dripping with urgency. The heart-filled material, which includes the friendship of Tamara and pregnant friend Leti (Katia Garcia), contains nuggets.
Also a tapestry of South American poverty, the drama movingly demonstrates how most of its hustling characters are just less fortunate souls trying to make their lives a smidgen brighter. Even the menacing Nelson has a sad personal motive.
The actors, most of them first-timers, are believable. With his earnest and anxious eyes, Franco’s Victor is a compelling protagonist in the old-fashioned thriller vein (think Hitchcock or noir) involving a relative innocent who gets mired in something nasty.
The closure, like much of this film, superbly blends the cynical and the sunny.
Starring Celso Franco, Lali Gonzalez, Victor Sosa, Nelly Davalos
Written by Juan Carlos Maneglia
Directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia, Tana Schembori
Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes