For those who considered “Sin nombre” too Hollywood, Spanish director Diego Quemada-Diez’s “La jaula de oro” provides a less schematic yet equally striking ground-level view of four teens traveling from Central America to the U.S. border by train. Though it takes some work to engage with the characters at first, the journey makes a powerful impact, encouraging audiences — especially American ones — to re-evaluate the way they look upon undocumented immigrants, simply by revealing the harrowing trails this foursome faces en route to opportunity. Premiering in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, the pic should hitch a ride at some prestigious fests.

Adding a welcome dynamism to the unobtrusive silent-witness storytelling approach so much in vogue on the international art-cinema scene, Quemada-Diez assembles “La jaula de oro” (which translates as “the gilded cage”) out of moments rich in action, humor and intrigue. It’s not always clear what’s happening in any given scene, particularly early on, but the disorientation appears to be deliberate, as the director immerses auds in an odyssey far tougher than the participants could ever imagine: attempting to climb aboard a train and ride it nearly 1,200 miles to the U.S., an undertaking full of twists and setbacks.

The only major change that might have helped the film concerns the on-the-fly introduction of its four northward-bound travelers. We meet Juan (Brandon Lopez) swaggering through what looks like a rough ghetto neighborhood. He’s an aggressive teen with an abusive streak who stands to transform the most over the course of the journey, placating those who demand a clear arc from their characters. Next up is Sara (Karen Martinez), who cuts her hair and binds her breasts in order to pass as a boy — a smart idea, considering a subsequent scene revealing how dangerous the trip can be for women. Samuel (Carlos Chajon) is the runt of the group … and the most easily dissuaded.

Without so much as an expository planning scene, these three set out from Guatemala for the promised land. A few clicks north in Chiapas, they encounter Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), a Tzotzil Indian making the same trek. Were they back in the schoolyard, the three friends might be more inclined to give this native kid the time of day, but under these circumstances, any distraction from their goal could mean arrest, deportation or death — and besides, they can’t understand a word of his Mayan-based language.

To reveal that Chauk will ultimately be the key to reaching the U.S. could make the whole affair sound like some kind of Disney movie, and though lessons are learned and sacrifices made, the film couldn’t be farther from the feel-good family template. For starters, the four principal actors have tough faces and surly attitudes, rather than fan pages and record contracts. The young thesps are convincingly awkward in real-life situations, as in a scene that involves stealing a chicken and wringing its neck, and audiences would be well advised not to get too attached to them, as not everyone will survive the adventure.

Along the way, the foursome must contend with corrupt cops, ruthless bandits and a gang of kidnappers, before exposing themselves to U.S.-side sharpshooters just when they should finally be in the clear. Despite all the violence and cruelty along their path, kindness also awaits, as strangers throw fruit to those riding the passing boxcars, at one point even going so far as to shelter the kids from “la migra” (Mexican immigration police).

Alhough Quemada-Diez also allows for some essential bonding en route (nothing as archetypal as “Sin nombre’s” wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance), the helmer takes a largely unsentimental approach. His strategy is to keep audiences guessing, something he does by never ensuring the characters’ safety. In retrospect, the pic’s final tragic steps seem inevitable, and yet the outcome is virtually impossible to predict, even as it explains the surreal falling-snow motif subtly interwoven throughout — a sight completely alien in Guatemala and now imbued with unforgettable significance.

Cannes Film Review: ‘La jaula de oro’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 23, 2013. Running time: 109 MIN.

  • Production: (Mexico-Spain) An Animal de Luz Films, Machete Prods., Kinemascope Films production. (International sales: Films Boutique SAS, Berlin.) Produced by Edher Campos, Inna Payan, Luis Salinas. Co-producer, Diego Quemada-Diez.
  • Crew: Directed by Diego Quemada-Diez. Screenplay, Quemada-Diez, Lucia Carreras, Gibran Portela. Camera (color, widescreen), Maria Secco; editor, Paloma Lopez Carillo, Felipe Gomez; music, Jacobo Lieberman, Leo Heiblum; production designer, Carlos Jacques; sound, Matias Barberis; line producer, Luis Salinas; assistant director, Martin Torres.
  • With: Brandon Lopez, Rodolfo Dominguez, Karen Martinez, Carlos Chajon. (Spanish, Tzotzil dialogue)