A scrawny Afro-Colombian boy displaced with his brothers from the country’s Pacific-coast region hustles to create a new life in “La Playa D.C.,” a well-intentioned coming-of-ager strong on ethnographic interest but disappointingly lax on narrative. First-time director Juan Andres Arango’s film would be less surprising to find at a second-tier sprocket opera than at Cannes, where it premiered in Un Certain Regard, but the nevertheless impressive debut should rep Colombia nicely on the fest circuit for the next year or so. Like its artfully shallow-focus lensing, “La Playa” erects an artificial distance between auds and characters, to the exclusion of a more proletarian appeal.
It’s hard out there for a shrimp: Like hundreds of other black Colombians, spindly teenager Tomas (Luis Carlos Guevara) has been forced from the conflict-torn west to the city of Bogota, where he’s at the very bottom of a hierarchy where whites and Latinos live in relative comfort. The congested city seems a world away from the coastal region he and his siblings left behind, and Tomas and older brother El Chaco (James Solis) are saving money to go back. Meanwhile, their kid brother Jairo (Andres Murillo) is racking up a debt of his own, borrowing more than he can pay back to support his crack habit.
With their father gone and their mother’s new paramour unwilling to humor the siblings’ screw-ups any longer, the boys find themselves kicked out onto the streets of the film’s eponymous neighborhood. While his brothers each have experience fending for themselves, artistically inclined Tomas has to figure things out for the first time. As if encouraging auds to polish their own street smarts, writer-director Arango lets viewers suss out the game as it plays: Tomas observes two guys working a hub-cap polishing scam, and moments later, he’s trying the same thing out on someone else.
But the kid isn’t just a fast learner; he also has a genuine talent as an artist, which comes in handy at the local barbershop, where black men come for “tropas,” elaborate designs cut or woven into their hair. Tomas begins an apprenticeship in the custom, giving Arango an almost-documentary chance to show this visually provocative way the city’s black underclass celebrates its identity.
Eager to try his hand at tropas, Tomas even experiments on himself, untying his beautiful braids, a vestige of his former way of life, and working with his mentors to carve an elaborate ship around the back of his head (an homage to his hometown). Clearly, the scenes had to be shot more or less in sequence, since Tomas’ character evolves in sync with his hair, making a significant statement later in the film when he alters the image yet again.
But the storyline involving Tomas’ artistic aptitude, as well a related subplot concerning his courtship of a fair-skinned girl (Veronica Castellanos) who works in the same bazaar, never quite take off. Still, Arango seems less interested in borrowing the familiar success-follows-effort arc U.S. filmmakers lean on than he is in capturing the energy, mystery and occasional danger of La Playa.
The film sometimes literally sings, as hip-hop fuels Tomas’ wanderings through the streets of Bogota, occasionally cutting away from the congestion to remind auds of his more natural roots. Arango and d.p. Nicolas Canniccioni adopt the Dardenne brothers’ increasingly familiar style of planting the camera behind their protagonist’s head and following two steps behind — though “La Playa,” which was shot in hi-def but projected in stunning 35mm, keeps the focus so loose, Tomas’ surroundings often appear blurred.
As if to compound this detachment, Arango casts inexperienced actors throughout. Guevara may be a handsome little heartbreaker, but without training or instincts, his characterization never fully comes to life onscreen. Such blandness suggests Tomas could be one of thousands of identical stories, but robs this particular portrait of some much-needed specificity.