“Paraiso Travel,” Colombian-born helmer Simon Brand’s sophomore feature (after the undistinguished IFC indie “Unknown”), is a cautionary tale of teen runaways at large in New York. Pic combines the perilous border-crossing saga, a la “Sin nombre,” with the struggling Gotham immigrant drama of Ramin Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart” or Steve Barron’s “Choking Man,” to mildly engrossing effect. Though a record-setting hit in Colombia, this downbeat co-production is unlikely to resonate strongly with Hispanic auds Stateside despite the sultry warmth of Ana de la Reguera (“Nacho Libre”) and the colorful presence of co-producer John Leguizamo as a stuttering S&M shutterbug.
Unlike the protagonists of most illegal-immigration pics, economic necessity and dreams of a better life do not impel the adolescent hero of “Paraiso Travel” to leave Medellin, Colombia, for America. Rather, his tease of a girlfriend flaunts and withholds her sexual favors unless and until they reach New York. Once there, however, Marlon (handsomely wooden Aldemar Correa) and Reina (deliciously amoral Angelica Blandon) accidentally separate, and the film follows Marlon as he struggles to survive in an alien city.
Brand alternates scenes of Marlon’s wintry U.S. misadventures with long sequences chronicling the events that landed him there. Back in Medellin, Marlon’s college future was derailed by his lust for Reina, the horny teen as helpless to resist her come-ons as he was unable to prevent her from robbing his uncle to fund their clandestine journey.
Brand outdoes himself with his depiction, via flashbacks, of the couple’s long, arduous trek through Central America with a band of fellow border jumpers: The robbery, rape, murder and other atrocities that befall the group prove all the more harrowing by sneaking obliquely into the frame while, in the foreground, the ongoing tug of war between Marlon’s decency and Reina’s selfishness takes centerstage.
Meanwhile, back in present-day Queens, Marlon reluctantly joins a friendly Colombian community, including a romantic attraction to a lovely singer/CD vendor (de la Reguera), but constantly sabotages his assimilation with his obsessive search for Reina.
Pic contrasts the family-owned Colombian restaurant where Marlon finds succor — complete with grumpy father, welcoming mother and helpful fraternal figures — to the weird Gotham hellholes where he sleeps at night. The latter locales include a rehab center where he’s attacked by a nympho dipsomaniac (Latin American soap star Margarita Rosa de Francisco) and a squat he shares with Leguizamo’s porn photog.
Tech credits, particularly Miguel Angel Alvarez’s production design, are top-notch. Unfortunately, aside from the glimpses of the couple’s nightmarish crossing, Brand never commands an aesthetic that galvanizes the pic’s rather conventional moral oppositions.