Yank legit vet Larry Pine delivers an impressive turn in this tautly assembled, socio-minded Brazilian thriller, which casts a glaring-yet-caring eye on neglected Rio street kids. Presence of Anglo actors could ease the way for U.S. exposure, although this is more likely to happen in vid stores than in arthouses.
Pine, last seen in “Vanya on 42nd Street,” plays an American businessman caught up in some local shenanigans, and he speaks fluent-enough Portuguese to help carry the tale without altering its tone. Pic starts in a hillside Rio slum, with spunky 13-year-old Branquinha (played memorably by Priscilla Assum) confidently telling a German TV crew about her “marriage” to the coolest guy in the hood. In fact, the hapless Maguila (Andre Mattos) is a fat, ignorant slob whose careless talk and dopey action lead to the death of his drug-trade boss.
When the other bad guys make a big magilla out of this, he hits the road, taking his tomboy g.f. and her gentler schoolmate Japa (Silvio Guindane) along for the ride. As soon as they enter some leafy burbs, Maguila’s bladder gets the better of him, and he asks to the use the bathroom at one particularly nice villa, where — after a nasty altercation with a suspicious chauffeur — he basically stumbles into a hostage situation in the waiting.
Alone in the massive house are Pine’s pragmatic William, his snooty teenage daughter, Julie (Ryan Massey), and their down-to-earth maid (Maria Silvia). Maguila’s not actually interested in hanging around, but — bleeding and confused — he soon drinks himself into a stupor, leaving the frightened kids in charge of an increasingly out-of-control mess.
For Branquinha, the blond, spoiled Julie (always spelled July in the clumsy subtitles) is initially like an unapproachable movie star; when she gets up the nerve, though, the rough street girl begins alternately worshipping and humiliating her captive. Unfortunately, the Canadian Massey is so obnoxious here that it’s hard to tell whether helmer Murilo Salles is asking us to sympathize with her.
More lines get blurred when the cops arrive, along with plenty of media hounds, and what started as a simple pee break turns from a south-of-the-border Harold Pinter setup into a major tabloid circus. Although it’s still amusing in its caustic way, the tale then loses some of its specificity, becoming a standard class-war scenario with lots of lobs at too-easy targets.
Even so, an apocalyptic ending provides a downbeat jolt to this generally smart and unpredictable drama. Tech credits are good, with varied camera moves and deluxe stage sets helping to offset plot claustrophobia.