Cleanly scripted in pure Hollywood fashion by Richard Curtis (with Felipe Braga translating it into Portuguese), Stephen Daldry’s “Trash” won’t be confused for a real Brazilian production: Its storyline, staging and inevitably positive spin unmistakably mark it as offshore, notwithstanding the participation of Fernando Meirelles’ 02 Filmes. A South American answer of sorts to “Slumdog Millionaire,” the pic features a trio of charismatic kids living next to a Rio garbage dump who stumble upon evidence certain to bring down a corrupt politico. Audience-friendly to a fault, “Trash” should be a modest money earner for Universal Intl., which will no doubt pitch it along “Slumdog” lines.
Andy Mulligan’s source novel was geared toward adolescents, but the film feels like more adult fare simply because young teens aren’t exactly known for their attraction to subtitles. English makes up a small percentage of the dialogue, mostly coming from Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara, the necessary U.S. stars, one guesses, to ensure a decent budget and increase chances for worldwide success. Brazilian headliners Selton Mello and Wagner Moura are safe guarantors of South American interest, and the anti-corruption lines at the end, aimed at Brazilian viewers, testify to the producers’ desire to work all angles. A co-director credit to acting coach Christian Duurvoort no doubt signals his heavy involvement in guiding local actors in their own language.
“Trash” works in large part thanks to the infectious energy and sheer pleasure in comradeship exuded by the three young teen boys, all around 14 years old (Daldry’s facility with boy actors once again stands him in good stead). The kids live in a lakeside favela, spending their days sorting trash at the municipal dump next door. Superb editing by Elliot Graham economically yet clearly crams in all the needed information in the first 10 minutes or so as characters are introduced.
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White-collar guy Jose Angelo (Moura) is captured during a police raid just after tossing a wallet onto a passing garbage truck. While Jose is tortured and killed by the cops in one part of town, Raphael (Rickson Tevis) finds the portfolio in his local trash heap, and shares the cash with friend Gardo (Eduardo Luis). When cops come sniffing around, offering a reward for the return of the wallet, Raphael gets suspicious and starts wondering about the key he found inside. The boys confide in sewer-dwelling peer Rato (Gabriel Weinstein), who recognizes the key as belonging to a set of lockers downtown.
In the locker, they find a piece of paper with some code, and then head back to the favela and Father Julliard (Sheen), whose computer is their window to the world (illiteracy rates have fallen significantly in Rio’s favelas, so it’s not so farfetched that these kids are Google-fluent). The good priest is of that stock-in-trade, a social-activist man of the cloth who takes swigs from the communion cup, arrived from the States decades earlier to minister to the poor. He’s assisted by newcomer Olivia (Mara), who teaches the boys English, among other undefined tasks. “Don’t waste your life fighting battles that make you bitter or make you dead,” says Julliard to Olivia, succinctly signaling his Acme brand of priestly tired cynicism.
The line also stands in contrast to the boys’ refusal to give up when they sense they’re on the verge of discovering something important, no matter the danger. When Rafael doesn’t show up for garbage-picking duty, sadistic police inspector Frederico (Mello) gets suspicious and tries to dispose of the boy, but he survives and overhears the cops mention mayoral candidate Antonio Santos (Stepan Nercessian). With Olivia’s help, Gardo goes to a maximum-security prison to see Clemente (Nelson Xavier), uncle to Jose Angelo and the addressee of a letter the boys found. Following this cheesily over-emotional meeting, the kids scope out Santos’ home and learn that Jose Angelo stole around $4 million in payoff money, along with Santos’ ledger detailing all the bribery payments.
Daldry cleverly weaves in excerpts from a direct-to-camera video the boys make, using the device to compact information in a less didactic manner, and to deepen the trio’s palpable bond. In plot terms, this is classic underdogs-beat-the-system material, down to an improbably happy ending that bears no relation to the realism Daldry haphazardly aims for (and frequently misses); a late revelation about Jose Angelo’s daughter is particularly silly. Far better are the exciting chase sequences, and to Daldry’s credit, he avoids using the usual Rio locations, saving the pic from turning into a tourism promo. Oddly, religion plays an important role, not just through Father Julliard but in the frequent references to God’s protection and the like; the film could be retitled “Our Lady of Trash,” given its subtle implication that faith protects the kids from Frederico’s evil designs.
Cavils melt before the 1,000-watt charms of Tevis, Luis and Weinstein, all non-pros whose joy before the camera, and in each others’ company, transcends the more standard elements in the material. These kids deserve their own TV series. Sheen does what he can with a stereotyped character, but Mara’s role suffers from a lack of personality.
Unfailingly attractive lensing by Adriano Goldman (“Jane Eyre,” “August: Osage County”) is especially good at including the environment around the characters, despite a tendency to make it all look a bit too pretty. Although the favela sits on stilts in a rubbish-strewn lake (made for the occasion), next to the city dump, this is a remarkably clean production — even Rato’s body sores seem more pancake makeup than uncomfortable lesions. Antonio Pinto’s intrusive music has an annoying habit of anticipating action and mood.