“Ya No Estoy Aquí (I’m No Longer Here),” the third feature from Mexican director Fernando Frías de la Parra, paints a stirringly cinematic portrait of cultural dislocation and youthful rebellion. It’s an epic drama built upon an authentic, documentary-style depiction of Monterrey, Mexico’s Kolombiano subculture, focused on a youth gang bonded together not by violence, but by music. For fellow Mexican director, Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro, “it’s one of the most memorable debuts of the past couple decades.”
Set against a backdrop of cartel killings, the film mostly eschews in-your-face brutality in favor of a deep investment in character, identity and community.
“I’m No Longer Here” won 10 Ariel Awards in Mexico, including Best Picture and Best Director, and was recently named Mexico’s entry in the International Feature Film category of the Academy Awards.
While others play hip-hop and electronica at their parties, the teenagers of the crew “Los Terkos” (or “The Stubborn”) express their individuality by dancing to cumbia. It’s a genre that has been adopted across Latin America — a departure from its origination as a courtship dance by African slaves in Colombia. The Terkos reinterpret the transporting music as something especially bittersweet, slowing it down so that “it lasts longer.”
“It begins with the music,” Frías de la Parra says of his film, and indeed, the layered rhythms and syncopated melodies serve as a beautiful corollary for a story of immigration and loss. “I’m always playing with cultural clash, with syncretism, with glitches,” adds Frías de la Parra. “I like to think that spontaneity is something we need.”
The film depicts Monterrey, Mexico, as an urban environment of steep hills, open rooftops and breathtaking vistas, where carefree hangouts are often punctuated by shocking acts of violence. “From a visual point of view, it’s absolutely remarkable,” del Toro says. “The cinematography, the camera movement … all the beauty that it brings with the pain thematically.” The Terkos’ devotion to music and dance — their commitment to a world of beauty — mostly helps them sidestep the cartels. (And when they engage in petty street crime, they do it to buy more music.) But eventually, the violence hits too close to home.
The protagonist, Ulises (Juan Daniel García Treviño), is a tight-lipped 17-year-old with a striking, multidimensional hairstyle. The film begins with Ulises escaping retaliation from a violent local gang, and embarking on an odyssey to the New York City borough of Queens. Once there, his inability to speak English leaves him powerless and culturally unmoored. Frías de la Parra cuts back and forth between Queens and Monterrey, portraying Ulises’ escape — an escape not just from danger, but from the subculture that defines him — as something quite different from liberation.
“It presents you with the usual melodramatic choices, then discards them,” del Toro says of the film.
At times, the narrative seems headed toward thriller territory, but then lets the violence recede into the background, instead emphasizing the emotional stakes of Ulises’ crisis of identity.
None of the film’s dramatic beats proceed in familiar fashion. Once Ulises arrives in Queens, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Lin (Angelina Chen), the garrulous granddaughter of a shopkeeper who employs Ulises as a day laborer. Initially, the friendship seems like it might turn into romance, but Lin and Ulises’ inability to communicate steers their relationship in a less determinate direction.
For Alfonso Cuarón, another Academy Award-winning Mexican director who helped pave the way for filmmakers like Frías de la Parra, the film “actually challenges your expectations, and goes to another place that is more truthful and powerful.”
To infuse “I’m No Longer Here” with a sense of documentary truth, Frías de la Parra approached the casting process as if organically assembling a family. “Most of the film is made with people who have never acted before,” he says. “The casting process was, to me, the richest part of the project. It all started with me going to Monterrey, then connecting [with the actors] online. … We were sharing experiences — it was a playful process. [And then] we rehearsed for like three months.”
Ulises was the final role that Frías de la Parra cast. According to the director, lead actor Treviño had some hesitance when they first met. “He didn’t know how to dance,” recalls Frías de la Parra. Treviño then took it upon himself to learn how to dance cumbia, just for the role. “The film would have been very different without him — he is so special,” Frías de la Parra says of his lead.
Frías de la Parra’s ability “to create a complicity between all of these actors is really an inspiration,” says Cuarón.
The overwhelming critical and audience response to “I’m No Longer Here” has placed Frías de la Parra at the forefront of the next generation of Mexican auteurs.
“I think Mexican cinema requires talents like Fernando to continue,” says del Toro. “He inherits a mantle that you can trace back to the golden era of Mexican cinema.”
Adds Cuarón, “Filmmakers like Fernando represent the torch for what is to come.”
Check out the Netflix FYC Film Awards website for a more in-depth look at “I’m No Longer Here.”