Set against the harsh reality of children being illegally exploited for cheap labor in contemporary Portugal, “Jaime” centers on a 13-year-old survivor who takes control of his future when his dysfunctional family proves inadequate. While it breaks no new ground and lacks the haunting resonance of Teresa Villaverde’s “The Mutants,” which also dealt with underprivileged urchins, director Antonio-Pedro Vasconcelos’ absorbing, admirably unsentimental drama — winner of the Special Jury Award in San Sebastian — should play well in festival and TV slots.
Opening establishes a tough, matter-of-fact tone as an underage worker in an Oporto bakery loses his fingers in a machine accident. His insensitive boss offloads him at the hospital, instructing the boy’s father to say he did it at home playing with a knife. Unnerved by the mishap, the boss then fires his other underage employee, Jaime (Saul Fonseca), who was working unbeknownst to his parents to buy a replacement for his father’s stolen moped, to enable him to go back to work. Jaime’s young mother (Fernanda Serrano) has thrown his father (Joaquim Leitao) out of the house and taken up with a Brazilian (Guilherme Leme).
Eager to continue earning, Jaime hooks up with schoolmate Ulisses (Sandro Silva), who also sleeps through classes and works nights. The pair make some cash as golf caddies, but both kids aim for the real money to be made on construction sites. When his stepfather pilfers Jaime’s stashed earnings, the boy moves out to stay in a shack with his depressed, poverty-stricken father, who still carries a torch for his wife.
The melancholy story slowly gathers intensity as a work inspector breathes down Jaime’s neck, his mother attempts to force him back home, his father succumbs to the sadness of his broken existence and Ulisses falls from scaffolding at a building site and is hospitalized.
Carlos Saboga’s screenplay perhaps veers toward overkill by touching on too many of society’s ills — prostitution, pedophilia, drugs, etc. — merely for the sake of being exhaustive. But the story’s principal trajectory, which traces Jaime’s loss of childhood innocence as he becomes tougher, more somber and hardened by experience and responsibility, is quietly affecting, only fully unleashing its emotional kick in the lovely closing sequence.
Shot mainly on the city streets at night, the film makes use of sharp visual contrasts such as Oporto’s run-down, poor quarters and the green, manicured lawns of the golf course. Cast is natural, especially young Fonseca, who brings plenty of determination and combative spirit to the pivotal title role.