The lives portrayed in Carlos Alfonso Corral’s slim, sensitive and soulful “Dirty Feathers” are lived on several edges. There’s the edge of poverty. The film’s subjects are homeless, in and out of shelters, sometimes sleeping under bridges. There’s the edge of addiction and sobriety, with many of them heavy drug users in various stages of kicking or sliding back into the habit. And with one guy brandishing a blade in a moment of chest-beating bravado, there’s the knife-edge of violence and mental instability, as various volatile conditions go untreated due to insurance status and lack of access to healthcare resources.
This marginalization is geographical too: “Dirty Feathers” was filmed on the streets and in the institutions of the U.S.-Mexico border towns of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, reflecting Corral’s own Mexican-American identity. And while Nini Blanco’s beautiful, expressive handheld monochrome photography is often stark in its contrasts between light and shade, it too accumulates a power that exists in between those states. “Black and white” is always a misnomer after all: Everything shot that way appears in shades of gray.
The film is loosely arranged around several recurring characters with a wide cross-section of other voices and perspectives providing the background chorus of storytelling, trash-talking and lamentation. Brandon, and Reagan have recently been barred from “The OC” — El Paso’s downtown homeless shelter — and are back on the streets, where Brandon murmurs benedictions over Reagan’s swollen belly. She is eight months pregnant; both are still using. “I’m getting ready to have my new breakdown,” she mutters, drily.
Nathan, a good-looking, articulate 43-year-old is due to be the baby’s godfather, which among other things is causing him to reassess a life in which, as he says in the film’s kinetic opening salvo: “All we fucking do is chase dope.” And then there’s 16-year-old Ashley, homeless all her life, whose woozily beatific observations, spoken against a repeated folksy strings motif so that they sound like beat poetry, give the film its vaguely prayer-like cadence. At times, with her older-than-her-years face and the childishly optimistic yet somehow worldly philosophy, she recalls Linda Manz in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”
Corral crewed on Roberto Minervini’s last three documentary features (Minervini is a producer here), including 2018’s “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire,” by which “Dirty Feathers” seems most explicitly influenced. And especially in its rather lovely threading of music and overlapping dialogue through the soundtrack, the film also recalls Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother,” while being thematically similar to Allah’s “Field Niggas,” a similarly eye-level look at the denizens of a Harlem street corner.
It’s notable, however, just what Corral’s debut feature, by comparison, lacks: Minervini and Allah’s films managed to be beautiful and sorrowful and furious. Sometimes here the determination to find transcendence in squalor and spiritual wisdom in incoherence feels like it needs to be set on fire by righteous rage at the abandonment of these people to their fates, however resourcefully they are managing to negotiate them. A young man in a tutu self-describes as, among other things, a trans-dimensional angel vampire mermaid robot, but if we’re meant to be moved to wonder by the whimsical metaphysics of his free-association monologue, it’s hard to not also be frightened for him, and angry with a system that provides no visible support to such a clearly vulnerable person.
Ethical concerns will always haunt the fringes of any endeavor like this: To whose benefit is it, exactly, to makes something lyrical out of real-world circumstances that have little poetry to them? But Corral avoids the pitfalls of poverty tourism with the quiet sincerity and obvious respect, even love, encoded into his approach. And there are several moments that do punch through with unexpected ferocity, including Brandon’s collapse after the theft of his belongings, the casual revelation of teardrops tattooed over heroin trackmarks, and most agonizingly, one man’s recollection of discovering the body of the son who committed suicide on his 19th birthday — his anguish almost blisters the screen.
These raw, unvarnished moments are among the film’s most powerful, but more often, Corral’s impulse, with nothing but the purest and most compassionate of intentions, is to make “Dirty Feathers” a softer, more uplifting experience. It is not a lie by any means, but it is certainly hard truth given a gloss of filmic fabrication, to arrange these slivers of tragedy into a shape that looks like hope.