Combining immaculate formal composure with intrepid thematic sangfroid in a comparable manner to fellow new-school Mexican filmmakers Amat Escalante and Michel Franco, David Pablos makes a purposeful, largely successful play for attention with his sophomore feature, “The Chosen Ones.” High on blunt impact and low on even qualified hope, this story of teenage girls kidnapped and forced into prostitution coolly identifies a range of social and sexual inequalities in contemporary Mexico, and proceeds with indictment via vivid exposition rather than verbal rhetoric. The resulting film, while a little one-note in its dramatic development, is as hard to shake as it is to watch; distribution potential may be limited following its Un Certain Regard debut, but festival programmers will continue to give “The Chosen Ones” their nod of approval.
In pinning its narrative not on one of its grievously mistreated female victims but on the moral plight of a young man caught between obscene professional obligation and tender impulses of the heart, “The Chosen Ones” will leave some viewers justifiably yearning for a more distinct female perspective on its waking-nightmare scenario. Still, the way Pablos has chosen to frame his story highlights the overwhelming degree of patriarchal influence even in younger strata of the the society under scrutiny: Whether the film merely reinforces or damningly reflects that gender bias is open to constructive debate, but either way, it effectively arouses hot reserves of anger in its audience.
Sex trafficking is not a new issue in Mexico, even if its media presence has been dwarfed over the years by the ongoing coverage — in news and in fiction alike — of the country’s continuously raging drug war. (Even at Cannes, Pablos’s superior film has stood in the shadow of Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” a far glossier exercise in south-of-the-border moral turpitude.) By setting his unhappy story in the border city of Tijuana — as opposed to Tenancingo, widely recognized as the epicenter of the Mexican sex-slave trade — Pablos invites particularly horrified responses of so-near-yet-so-far cultural recognition from adjacent U.S. auds.
“The Chosen Ones,” needless to say, is a bitterly ironic title: There is no honor in selection here, as candidates are scoped out for a malleable fusion of youthful gullibility, domestic desperation and baby-doll beauty. Fourteen-year-old Sofia (Nancy Talamantes) has all three in spades, and is duly targeted by callow pimp-in-training Ulises (Oscar Torres), who takes her virginity in seemingly affectionate fashion in the film’s opening scene. Intercourse is never visually depicted in the film, though Pablos employs crisp editing and intimate sound design to evoke the tactility of the act both at its most desolate and most innocent extremes: In one scene, mid-coital moaning soundtracks a montage of alternating closeups of a sex slave and her clients prior to engagement. It’s a technique, not dissimilarly employed in Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty,” that chillingly conveys the detached sensation of bodily appropriation, while also elegantly getting around potential censorship restrictions pertaining to the subject of underage sexuality.
Ulises poses as Sofia’s b.f., with the objective of eventually tricking her into prostitution via a fabricated financial emergency — standard operating procedure, by which the boy’s thuggish elders have already populated a dilapidated brothel with equivalently duped girls. However, Ulises isn’t entirely faking it. Having genuinely fallen for Sofia, he admits the scheme to her on the eve of her planned abduction, and the young lovers attempt to flee to the U.S. together. Their escape is ill planned and short-lived: After the couple is caught by Ulises’ father, Marcos (Edward Coward), Sofia (renamed Andrea by her captors) is put ruthlessly to work.
Racked with a combination of guilt and puppy love, Ulises begs Marcos to release her, and is offered this grotesque ultimatum: Sofia will be freed from the ring only when Ulises lures another suitable girl to take her place, trading one independent life for another on the sole basis of his personal affections. He is thus required to repeat the very same bait-and-switch seduction process he achieved with Sofia — this time, crucially, keeping his heart entirely out of the matter. While cruising the market, he sets his sights on Marta (Leidi Gutierrez, excellent), a seemingly susceptible prospect who turns out to be a little more resistant to the ring’s vile mandate: “Don’t let her think for herself.” What ensues is a ghoulish twist on the boy-chases-girl formula so common to teen romance, in which either outcome condemns at least one young woman to an unspeakable fate. With no opposing presence from the other side of the law, Pablos’s script is concerned with raising awareness, not suggesting solutions to rigidly established, cyclical systems of abuse.
Faced with the insurmountable bleakness of the subject matter, Carolina Costa’s superb lensing resists following suit. The moral murk and disorder of the story world is countered with a system of meticulously geometric compositions and vibrant, semi-scorched jewel tones that serve as a teasing reminder of the counterfeit passions that trapped them in the first place. Carlo Ayhllon’s overwhelming, organ-heavy score, on the other hand, points both the characters and the audience toward an unforgiving abyss.