Five financially strapped men are hired to paint the center stripe along 120 miles of Mexican state highway in “The Thin Yellow Line,” an appealing dramedy from debuting feature helmer-writer Celso Garcia. The good-looking, movingly thesped, bittersweet tale will strike some as too reminiscent of Icelandic helmer Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s road crew pic “Either Way” and its U.S. remake “Prince Avalanche,” but Garcia’s underlying theme of economic crisis makes his pic far more poignant. Although it may seem overly familiar to arthouse buyers, there’s no denying it is a crowdpleaser. After its world preem at the Guadalajara fest, “Yellow Line” nabbed the audience award and several other kudos, and Montreal’s public voted it best Latin American film.
Garcia potently expresses the tough economic climate that his characters must survive in the very first scene as Antonio (Damian Alcazar), a melancholy blue-collar worker, is dismissed from his night watchman’s job at a junkyard and replaced by a ferocious dog. Left with only his 1976 Chevy truck and a box of well-thumbed photos and clippings, the aging Antonio finds work hard to come by and payment for honest labor even more so. Luckily, he crosses paths with an engineer (Fernando Becerril) who remembers him as the best construction crew chief he ever had.
The engineer puts Antonio in charge of a highway maintenance project in San Luis Potosi that needs to be completed in 15 days and gives him a crew of four vastly different rookies. There’s short, stocky Atayde (Silveiro Palacios), a motor-mouth former circus stagehand; hulking Gabriel (Joaquin Cosio), whose failing eyesight forced him to stop driving big rigs; rebellious teen Pablo (Americo Hollander), who is saving to join his brother in Chicago; and cynical ex-con Mario (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), who turns out not to have left his thieving ways behind.
Eventually, the rookies learn the work and as they share more of their backstories, they develop a genuine admiration for each other’s skills, wisdom and judgment. Garcia illustrates this beautifully in a scene where a rattlesnake glides over Mario’s legs and Atayde comes to the rescue.
But for no-nonsense loner Antonio, the responsibility for the crew — and the job — weighs heavily, especially because of an incident in his past. Moreover, he finds himself frequently locking horns with young Pablo, who continues to challenge his authority and advice.
The road through the harshly beautiful desert landscape becomes an equally important element of the tale. From the oversized bull sign that offers them some relief from the scorching hot sun to the rundown hacienda where they shelter from a storm and receive a welcome meal and a place to bed down, to the sweetly singing religious procession that magically emerges out of the dusk, the road provides some bounty. But it is also a source of danger; of flash floods and drivers who don’t respect the crew’s flagmen.
Garcia, who participated in screenwriter labs at Cannes and Sundance, started developing his script in 2010 so any resemblance to Sigurdsson’s work is purely coincidental. His tight screenplay mirrors both the road and life itself, with straight lines, curves and potholes. As in the best road movies, the journey of the workers changes their way of seeing and understanding life. For them and us, the line they paint comes to symbolize the thin line between right and wrong, laughter and tears, and life and death.
The ensemble of veteran Mexican thesps and newcomer Hollander evince credible chemistry, while the tip-top tech credits, led by Emiliano Villanueva’s gorgeous wide screen lensing, make the film a palpable pleasure to watch.