With experience in TV commercials, Gerardo Tort makes a remarkable feature debut with “Streeters,” a bleak, relentless view of impoverished kids living — and dying — in the mean streets of Mexico City. Awarded best film prize by unanimous jury vote at the Guadalajara fest, pic is bound to be a hot ticket internationally. Domestic B.O. will depend on the same advertising savvy and audience awareness that made “Amores perros” a hit.
“Streeters” is based on the late Jesus Gonzalez Davila’s “De la calle,” a milestone in Mexican theater thanks to Julio Castillo’s inventive direction. Unlike the intentional staginess that Benjamin Cann worked into last year’s “Chronicle of a Breakfast,” also adapted from a play by Gonzalez, Tort and screenwriter Marina Stavenhagen have eschewed any trace of theatricality in this depiction of destitute teenagers.
Working in a butcher shop, Rufino (Luis Fernando Pena) sells a bag of cocaine that belongs to his adoptive mother’s lover, corrupt fed Ochoa (Mario Zaragoza). He plans to use the cash to escape with his girlfriend Xochitl (Maya Zapata), a teenage single mother, but first tries to find his real father, although he believes he may be dead.
Naturally related to Luis Bunuel’s classic “Los olvidados” and the recent “La vendedora de rosas” by Colombian helmer Victor Gaviria, “Streeters” paints a hellish, nocturnal world of existential dead ends and sordid violence. At the film’s beginning, Rufino and his pals ride a Ferris wheel and talk about traveling to the sea; this is the last time we’ll see any one of them doing anything remotely childlike.
With no homes to speak of and the street gang as surrogate family, these youngsters use petty crime and menial jobs to survive. Their only solace comes from smoking pot or inhaling glue in the sewers where many of them spend the nights.
In a career-making performance, Pena (winner of the best actor prize) portrays Rufino as old beyond his years but still innocent enough to pursue romantic ideals. His drug-induced fantasy of being cradled in the arms of the Virgin of Guadeloupe (Dolores Heredia) is especially affecting.
Aided by Hector Ortega’s roving, handheld camera and Juan Carlos Solorzano’s jump-cut editing, Tort sustains an in-your-face sense of immediacy, never dwelling on even the most brutal actions.
Bleached colors add to the film’s ominous atmosphere, while music score by Diego Herrera (former member of rock group Caifanes) is used sparingly to set the right tone in key scenes.