Punchiness comes at the cost of subtlety in “The Little Polish,” a well-intentioned street kids drama that employs real-lifers as actors. Set in Buenos Aires’ underbelly, the appalling-because-true yarn makes for chastening viewing, and reps a valuable if oblique critique of a system that creates child-exploiting mafias. But pic has a dramatic monotony caused by its fidelity to a real story, despite carrying a strong emotional charge. Further fest exposure is indicated.
Thirteen-year-old El Polaquito (Abel Ayala) lives in Buenos Aires’ Constitucion Station and makes a living singing tangos on trains. He hands over most of his income to lame Rengo (Roly Serrano), a vile local hustler working in tandem with the cops.
El Polaquito — whose nickname comes from his performing tango songs from an old singer called El Polaco (the Polishman) — strikes up a relationship with hooker Pelu (Marina Glazer, who won the actress award at Montreal for her perf). When his best friend, Vieja (Fernando Roa), steals Pelu from him, El Polaquito stoically accepts it as he accepts all the other horrors life throws at him.
He decides to take Pelu off the streets by having her carry a hat around while he’s performing. The consequent damage to his pocket angers Rengo, and Polaquito’s innocent idealism sets in motion a trail of viciousness that he spends the rest of pic trying fruitlessly to flee.
El Polaquito is a tragically defiant, lonely little figure — taunted by his friend, often in jail, beaten up on an hourly basis, forced to smash his violent father over the head with a stick and sexually abused. He fastens onto Pelu as an escape, transforming her in his imagination into someone she’s not prepared to be.
The fact that El Polaquito has no chance whatever of coming out on top makes for an emotionally tiring, sometimes voyeuristic ride: Script goes for the emotional jugular every time. Still, Ayala does a fine job, as does helmer Juan Carlos Desanzo in turning what must have been an unruly cast into acceptable actors.
However, unlike other fare that has used street kids as actors, such as Colombian Victor Gaviria’s “The Rose Seller,” pic focuses too tightly on the plight of El Polaquito himself. Only occasionally does it broaden out into a comment on the social conditions that give rise to such blighted lives, with the script at times uncertain about whether it’s social criticism or a street romancer. Music, often faux-funk, is crushingly unsubtle.
Characters speak Buenos Aires street slang, much of which will cause problems even for native Spanish speakers. English subtitles on print caught were poor, and at times incomprehensible.