A Honduran teen harbors dreams of becoming a famous singer, but finds it hard to slip the bonds of a Guatemalan brothel in “The Precocious & Brief Life of Sabina Rivas,” a lurid soap opera from helmer Luis Mandoki. At times recalling better films like “Sin nombre,” the meandering plot encompasses vicious gang violence against illegal immigrants; the sexual exploitation of underage girls; corrupt police, military and customs officials; narcotics trafficking and even (gasp) incest. Telenovela fans may flock initially, but prospects seem better in ancillary, even on home turf. Videocine launched the pic in 200 Mexican theaters on Nov. 9.
Indomitable 16-year-old thrush Sabina (Venezuelan thesp Greisy Mena, in a game turn for which she shared the actress prize at the Valladolid fest) is the star attraction of Tijuanita, a nightclub/bordello ruled by wily madam Dona Lita (Angelina Pelaez) in Tecun Uman, Guatemala. An early production number featuring bare-breasted, underage prostitutes strutting their stuff sets the pic’s sensationalistic tone. So, too, does a stylized scene of fearsomely tattooed Mara Salvatrucha gang members raping, robbing and killing unfortunate migrants illegally crossing the border from Guatemala into southern Mexico, while border police cynically look the other way.
Sabina believes if she just does as she’s told, she will eventually wind up with a coveted Mexican visa, even if she has to service all manner of unpleasant men. ” ‘No’ is what they get from their wives,” says corrupt border police officer/pimp Artemio (popular thesp Joaquin Cosio, hamming it up) as he instructs her to smile and spread her legs.
As if turning tricks every night weren’t enough, Sabina must also contend with the violent attentions of a gringo customs official (Nick Chinlund, embarrassing), part of a U.S. team sent to the Mexican border to screen for terrorists. And she crosses paths with a former lover, Jovany (Fernando Moreno), who is now part of the brutal Mara Salvatrucha.
While the serious-minded source material, Rafael Ramirez Heredia’s novel “La Mara,” traces the plight of various immigrants and their cruel fates at the hands of the rampaging gang, Diana Cardoso’s screenplay merely borrows the backdrop but turns the material into melodrama; she foregrounds the story of Sabina, primarily her creation, and adds a twisted love affair.
The screenplay’s clumsy structure, risible dialogue and cliched characters, along with the mostly one-dimensional performances, dilute the emotional impact of the harrowing situations the film depicts. Moreover, the history of Sabina and Jovany’s relationship is barely developed, rendering a final reel reveal lamely anticlimactic.
Mexican director and Hollywood regular Mandoki (“Innocent Voices,” “Angel Eyes,” Message in a Bottle”), helms in a workmanlike style, with atmospheric widescreen lensing by Damian Garcia leading a high-caliber craft package.