A couple of graffiti kids with the social engagement of well-meaning teens express themselves in the Colombian city of Cali in “Los hongos,” Oscar Ruiz Navia’s likable, much-anticipated follow-up to “Crab Trap.” Less self-consciously “arty” than his debut, this is a generally appealing mix of docu-realism with impressionistic scenes (the helmer calls it a “documentary dream”), though its didactic passages highlighting political problems stop the action cold, and the final section throws narrative discipline out the window. Still, the mix largely works, and will see heavy traction via fest rotation.
The title, which translates to “The Mushrooms,” is meant as a metaphorical description of these characters, who are living in a society that’s rotting from the inside, and yet are finding the energy to grow. (It’s a nice concept, though without Ruiz Navia’s explanation in the press notes, few will pick up on the idea.) Ras (Jovan Alexis Marquinez Angulo) and Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura Tascon) are buddies from different social classes, drawn together by a mutual love of graffiti culture.
Ras is a working-class black teen, his disapproving evangelical mother, Maria (Maria Elvira Solis), a single parent forced to emigrate from the countryside. Calvin is a middle-class white kid whose parents are divorced; he’s mostly living with his nurturing ex-teacher grandma, Norma (Atala Estrada). “Los hongos” excels at making the Ras-Calvin friendship a mutually supportive partnership with no power posturing: It’s impossible not to like these guys and their refreshingly uncorrupted vision.
Galvanized by online videos of Arab Spring protests, the duo go to a meeting of Cali graffiti painters (including real artist Mario Wize) proposing a tribute to the demonstrators to be included in a group project; everyone welcomes the idea. Ruiz Navia emphasizes a socially aware type of graffiti activist, immersed in a philosophy of collaboration against the forces of oppression rather than individualized anarchy; the narcissism of taggers defacing public buildings is apparently another breed.
As with “Crab Trap,” the director sensitively incorporates multiple approaches to locale and milieu, here weaving together various classes as well as urban neighborhoods, all expertly negotiated by the two protags. Less successful is when the film turns preachy: An overlong scene in which Calvin’s father, Gustavo (Gustavo Ruiz Montoya), participates in a men’s club discussion about Colombia’s problems with corruption and drugs could easily be excised, especially since issues of authoritarianism and political patronage are clearly incorporated later on.
More effective, though narratively incongruous, is a scene of Maria singing with a friend about her beautiful land, and the pain of being forced from her home in another part of Colombia. It fits with Ruiz Navia’s desire for an impressionistic flow that foregrounds atmosphere over straightforward storytelling, yet the combination of the two isn’t always so serendipitous (especially true in the final sequences, despite their pictorial beauty). The 35mm visuals are always attractive, especially in their sensitivity to color, and Felipe Guerrero’s editing finds the right balance without any of the over-edgy rapidity associated with most pics focused on graffiti culture. Music selection is similarly spot-on and never pushy.