Despite a tough and rather bleak story, this Central American drama is bolstered by strikingly beautiful cinematography and involving characters. As a result, the film is funny, scary and sometimes darkly unnerving simply because it puts a very human face on an important issue. The focus is on one of the largest human migrations currently going on in the world, as Latin Americans head north to the land of promise.
The journey begins in Guatemala, where three 16-year-olds run away from home with plans of making a better life in the United States. The leader is Juan (Brandon Lopez), a perpetually angry kid with a big chip on his shoulder. He's accompanied by his hapless pal Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and the tenacious Sara (Karen Martinez), who chops her hair off and straps up her chest so she can pose as a boy named Oswaldo. Along the road they meet Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), an indigenous boy their age who speaks very little Spanish, and he joins them as they head north into Mexico, where they're caught and sent home. Samuel decides to stay there, but the other three hit the road again, hitching rides on trucks and trains as they inch their way north with hundreds of other hopeful migrants.
While there are moments of levity along the way, and several sequences in which these bedraggled pilgrims get help from locals and priests, the most memorable scenes in the film involve horrific encounters with thugs who take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable. The random, sudden violence is horrific as they traverse mountains and deserts, expansive landscapes and bustling villages. Yes, the film also works as a picturesque travelogue through Central America's geography and culture. And these remarkable young actors make it vivid and utterly gripping, creating complex chemistry between themselves and the people they meet.
Filmmaker Diego Quemada-Diaz takes the audience on the trip with these young people, experiencing their yearning hope and moments of refreshing humanity in between times when they're roughed up by cops, chased by immigration officers and attacked by bandits. By the end, their companionship is all they have, and even that is pretty fragile along this road. In this sense, it almost feels like the film was funded by the Guatemalan government in an attempt to debunk the myth that only paradise awaits. But the film is so artfully assembled that it's also a vital document to the rest of us, ra reminder that these immigrants are people just like us who are dreaming of a better life for their families.