An already moving film is given an unforeseen blush of relevance in these trying times by refracting an immigration story through the prism of a childhood experience of forced isolation. In Samuel Kishi Leopo’s tender and sincere “Los Lobos,” it is not a virus but poverty, uncertain legal status and stranger danger that makes the world outside the little family’s dingy apartment into a perilous place. Still, the rhythms of quarantine are painfully recognizable — the bursts of creativity followed by long stretches of boredom, the closeness and the squabbling, the intense yearning to be out in the world, nose pressed against the window pane.
For Max and Leo (two superbly natural performances from real-life brothers Maximiliano and Leonardo Najar Marquez), the loneliness is exacerbated because of the strangeness of this new country, with only the far-off promise of a trip to “Disney” to look forward to. Brought across the border from Mexico and on to Albuquerque by their desperate mother Lucia (a deeply affecting, tired-eyed turn from Martha Reyes Arias), the boys speak no English and have little understanding of why they are suddenly sleeping on the floor of a one-room flat of such dubious hygiene that they’re not allowed to walk on the carpet without shoes.
The shoes-on rule is one of several that their mother records for them into a dictaphone and leaves with them during the day while she runs herself ragged working as many menial jobs as she can find to make some money. But rule number one is that they never leave the apartment. And so they take to making up stories, which are briefly illustrated in animated crayon sequences, in which they cast themselves as “ninja wolves” who travel to alternate kingdoms via the bare lightbulb hanging from the dirty ceiling. This unusual mode of travel has been fabricated by Max, the older brother, from a fragment of conversation he heard relating to the disappearance of their father, and one of the film’s gentle gut-punch growing-pains moments occurs late on when we, and he, discover the real meaning of the term.
Octavio Arauz’ sensitive, appropriately constrained, close-up camerawork walks the fine aesthetic line between sentimental nostalgia and hard, ugly reality, making the images appealing to look at without romancing the squalor. And while Kenji Kishi Leopo’s melodic score can occasionally feel a little too insistently winsome, as a counterpoint to its sweetness, and to the whimsy of the animated interludes, the director also inserts a series of dignified, documentary-style portraits of the Albuquerque locals who hang around the block. This unobtrusively expands his modest film’s scope, making it not only a hazily heartfelt memoir of hardship, but also gradually building up a picture of a community — one that initially seems threatening and unwelcoming to the embattled family unit, but eventually comes to be, if not quite its savior, then at least its sympathetic companion.
Inevitably, the restrictions begin to chafe, especially on Max, and he eventually breaks the rules. The outside world, bristling with used syringes and tetanus-trap mattress skeletons is populated with allies and enemies, who can often be mistaken one for the other. There’s the initially brusque Chinese landlady (Cici Lau) who secretly feeds the boys baozi and brings them trick-or-treating; there’s the gang of local kids growing wild like weeds on a fence, who befriend Max only to later betray him.
But Leopo and co-writer Sofía Gómez Córdova’s delicate screenplay is not in the business of apportioning blame or creating villains, and extends its unfeigned, clear-eyed sympathy to all the characters, especially to the harried young mother. If Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” was an adult’s retroactive tribute and apology to a caregiver whom, as a child, he had underappreciated, “Los Lobos” is something similar, albeit on a far less extravagant scale. With it, Leopo, who would perhaps be justified in harboring some resentment at the challenges and privations of his early life, instead brims with empathy and humane understanding for the impossible dilemmas of Lucia’s situation. As the story resolves gently into optimistic but tempered expectations, with the kids finally being kids again, outside under wide skies, it is this absence of blame, and the careful balance between childlike wonder and adult pragmatism, that makes “Los Lobos” feel like an act not just of remembrance, but of steadfast love and gratitude.