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One of the more underwhelming directorial debuts unveiled at this year’s Cannes, Mexican migrant-picaresque The Golden Cage (La Jaula de oro) is a lukewarm examination of a hot-potato political issue.
Tracking three “undocumented” Guatemalan teens as they journey north in search of a better life in the United States, Spanish director/co-writer Diego Quemada Diez‘s Un Certain Regard entry does precious little to elevate itself from the endless flow of similar consciousness-raising tales clogging the world’s film-festival circuit. The high-profile Cannes bow might nevertheless lead to further bookings, especially at events specializing in youth and/or human-rights matters.
The opening is false-dawn promising, as we observe 16-year-old Juan (Brandon Lopez) in his squalid barrio. Within minutes he’s packed his meager possessions and started a haphazard journey towards el norte, joined by Sara (Karen Martinez) — who initially passes herself off as a boy named Osvaldo — and Samuel (Carlos Chajon). Along the way the trio pick up a fourth member, Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), an indio who speaks virtually no Spanish.
Juan, who has romantic designs on Sara, is initially hostile to this resourceful newcomer, who evidently has had a little more life-experience than his new “friends.” The ebbing of Juan’s racist enmity is the main narrative development in what’s basically a string of hazardous episodes as the kids dodge the attentions of la migra and gun-toting thuggish gangs. Along the way the foursome — only two make it to la frontera — finds that it’s far from plain sailing.
Four years ago, Cary Joji Fukunaga traversed very similar thematic terrain with his festival smash Sin Nombre, which obtained art house distribution in several key territories and propelled Fukunaga to a Hollywood career. Anyone who’s seen that genuinely tense and atmospheric picture, which audaciously stirred in some slightly lurid, gangster-thriller elements, will regard Quemada-Diez’s variation as lightweight indeed.
Consistently drab in visual terms — though shot on 35mm, the Cannes screening was from DCP — and seldom engaging in terms of character or story. Typical of the picture’s unadventurously conventional approach is the score by Jacobo Lieberman and Leo Heiblum, which introduces plangent piano tinkling in poignant moments and mournful strings when the going gets really tough.
Dialogue is seldom other than bluntly on-the-nose: “Up north everything is much better,” someone remarks early on, and when Juan is asked where he’s from, he improvises the answer “Suenas de Oro,” “dreams of gold.” One key character’s grim fate is foreshadowed in heavy-handedly obvious fashion, to the extent that undermines what should be a tear-inducing final act.
Quemada-Diez gets OK performances from his non-pro newcomers, but the production’s MVP is, by some way, location-hunter Cesar Banuelos, whose work provides pungently atmospheric backdrops of dust-blown backwaters to distract from the deficiencies otherwise on view.
Production companies: Animal de Luz, Machete, Kinemascope
Cast: Brandon Lopez, Rodolfo Dominguez, Karen Martinez, Carlos Chajon
Director: Diego Quemada-Diez
Screenwriters: Diego Quemada-Diez, Lucia Carreras, Gibran Portela
Producers: Inna Payan, Luis Salinas, Edher Campos
Director of photography: Maria Secco
Production designer: Carlos Jacques
Costume designer: Nohemi Gonzalez
Editor: Paloma Lopez Carilo, Felipe Gomez
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leo Heiblum
Sales: Films Boutique, Berlin
No MPAA rating, 109 minutes
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