An outstanding work of verite observation, “Nuyorican Dream” finds wrenching drama — and then some — in the travails of the Torres family, a Puerto Rican clan struggling against poverty, drug addiction, incarceration and other flip sides to the American Dream. Sympathetic and engrossing despite its downbeat content, Laurie Collyer’s vid-shot feature deserves a look from adventurous arthouse distribs; it’s a natural fit for further fest exposure and educational broadcast slots.
Co-conceived by the principal subject, pic was shot over five years’ course. (Unclear passages of time between incidents rep its only major structural flaw.) Eldest of five children, 29-year-old Robert Torres is the only one who’s pulled himself out of their poor Brooklyn environs: He graduated from high school, then college, lives in a Greenwich Village apartment and has meaningful (albeit harried and low-paid) work as a teacher and administrator at the bilingual alternative school he co-founded for underprivileged kids.
The rest of the Torres clan is still crammed into weary mother Marta’s Brooklyn flat, at least whenever circumstances don’t land them in worse places. Robert’s oldest sister, Betty, vanishes for long stretches, strung out oncrack and heroin. Middle sis Tati moved to Florida in an attempt to get herself off the former substance, but remains addicted to the latter.
At pic’s start younger brother Danny, who at 23 has already spent half his life behind bars, gets paroled from Riker’s Island. He says he’s determined to abandon “the ski-mask way” of trying to get ahead — i.e., via armed robbery. But lawful employment fails to materialize, and before long we suspect Danny has relapsed into drugs harder than marijuana (which is all he’ll admit to, at first). Eventually he lands back in the hoosegow, this time earning a long sentence in a maximum-security prison upstate.
Only 13-year-old youngest sib Milly has thus far escaped (as Danny grimly lists their options) “the grave, the hospital or lockup.” Robert is anxious to make sure she stays out of harm’s way. His blunt but apt view is that race, economics and criminal temptation leave families like the Torreses only two possible paths: “education or the street.” Meanwhile, ailing but indomitable 50 -year-old Marta — whose orphaned childhood in Puerto Rico was even more impoverished than that of her kids — is stuck raising a large brood of toddler grandchildren on slim means, each abandoned by her less stable progeny.
Her refusal to lose hope, and Robert’s high-principled influence, make “Nuyorican Dream” inspiring as well as frequently devastating. Despite their self-destructive, oft hard-to-defend actions, all the Torres sibs are charismatic subjects — good-looking, personable, sincerely apologetic about behavior they seem helpless to change, and the love among them is powerful. Granted remarkably intimate access by each subject, Collyer’s camera makes us share in the pain and disappointment each new crisis brings. Even the wee grandchildren are eerily clear-eyed about their circumstances — 5-year-old Ieysha voices “wishes” so precocious and realistic they’re chilling.
Robert’s private life — what little he has time for — as a gay Manhattanite is glimpsed only briefly, late in pic’s progress; this strikes an evasive note. But otherwise docu boasts honesty and emotional power in bulk. Lensing is rough ‘n’ ready, sound recording variable (both Spanish and hard-to-comprehend English passages are subtitled). Allan Title’s exemplary editing and exec producer Jellybean Benitez’s vibrant soundtrack of hip-hop and Latin sounds help maintain an absorbing pace. Despite tough content, there’s little cursing here, brightening pic’s chances for unedited broadcast exposure.