'I'm No Longer Here' ('Ya no estoy aqui'): Film Review

I'M NO LONGER HERE - Ya no estoy aqui - Publicity still - H 2020
An uneven but original take on immigrant displacement.

The director of HBO's 'Los Espookys' observes the vibrant Cholombiano dance and fashion subculture in Monterrey, Mexico, and the solitude of a teen sent over the border to escape gang violence in this Netflix film.

Ulises is a taciturn 17-year-old with hair like a punk rooster, shaved in the back, teased up into a peroxided crest on top and slicked down in thick, extended sideburns that almost meet in the middle under his chin, like a helmet strap. It's quite a look, especially whenever he assumes star position at the center of his dance crew, bobbing, weaving and strutting to the decelerated rhythms of cumbia music that are the group's beat of choice. Existing alongside the drug gangs of Monterrey, Mexico, this flamboyant teen subculture provides both an escape and a proud expression of identity, not unlike the ballroom voguing scene for at-risk LGBTQ youth in America.

The Netflix drama I'm No Longer Here (first seen in the 2020 digital edition of the Tribeca Film Festival) is written and directed by Fernando Frias de la Parra, who directed all six episodes of HBO's deadpan Spanish-language horror-comedy, Los Espookys. It doesn't quite have the tonal assurance of that idiosyncratic series and is structurally a tad baggy. But as a glimpse of a distinctive world and what happens when a young man who thrives within it gets uprooted, the film will yield low-key charms for patient viewers.

On an empty mountain road on the outskirts of town, Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia "Derek") says a hurried farewell to his girlfriend Chaparra (Coral Puente) before being driven away to safety, ending up in the multicultural Queens community of Jackson Heights. The misunderstanding that prompted his urgent departure becomes clear only later, when it's revealed that his proximity to an act of turf-war gang violence made him a retaliation target and endangered his whole family.

Among his Monterrey crew, "Los Terkos," Ulises is considered a leader — quiet and intense, projecting a tough-guy exterior yet nurturing and kind with kids new to the group. His wild style and bold dance moves have girls lining up to take selfies with him. He stays on friendly terms with the local drug dealers, earning their respect by virtue of his late brother, who started the gang, but he keeps the rest of his crew at a safe distance from them.

Cinematographer Damian Garcia's gorgeously fluid camerawork tracks the characters up and down the stairs and between the buildings of the poor community, pulling back to take in the dense cluster of ramshackle houses spread out all over the hill. The nighttime dance parties in which Los Terkos and other groups participate take place in outdoor clearings, with the throng moving like a single pulsing mass and then opening up an inner circle where individual dancers showcase their skills. During the days, Ulises and his crew hang out at abandoned construction sites; when not dancing they're usually talking about their passion for all things "Cholombiano."

This easygoing existence comes to an abrupt halt when violence intrudes. Ulises finds himself suddenly at the bottom of the pecking order with a crew of fellow immigrant day laborers in Queens who mock him for his peculiar hairstyle and outsize clothing. Being unable to speak English makes him even more powerless in the new environment. When a street photographer asks to shoot pictures of him, the other guys decline to translate. And when his dance moves impress the women they invite back to the place they all share, a fight erupts, pushing Ulises out on his own.

Frias, who also co-edited with Yibran Asuad, slips back and forth between Monterrey and New York, but at close to two hours the movie tends to amble. It too often lingers over inessential scenes and neglects the connective tissue, though the mostly inexperienced actors are appealingly natural.

A welcome tenderness creeps in when Ulises develops a cautious friendship with 16-year-old Lin (Angelina Chen), whose father runs a Queens corner store where he does some work clearing trash from the roof. With no place else to stay, Ulises starts sneaking up there at night to sleep, and Lin keeps his presence a secret. The nerdy outsider is fascinated by his strange appearance; she brings him food and small gifts, attempting to communicate with her rudimentary high school Spanish and a dictionary. But Lin's eagerness eventually crowds Ulises, whose cultural dislocation makes him yearn for home.

There's a stronger film stuck inside this rather lethargic assembly, which could have used cleaner narrative lines and a sharper frame. But there are nonetheless disarming moments of casual observation to keep you involved, like Ulises glancing at the sidelocks of a Hasidic Jew, seemingly recognizing a fellow hairstyle rule-breaker, or watching a hip-hop dancer on the subway. Scenes in which he interacts with a Colombian nightclub dancer (Adriana Arbelaes) walk a nicely judged line between connection and miscommunication.

Some of the potentially more affecting developments, like his arrest, his spell in an immigrant detention center and his clandestine border crossing are given cursory treatment rather than played up for dramatic effect. That works to some degree, but Frias' handling of the escalating drug war and rioting in Monterrey feels haphazard. Near the end, the script makes the explicit point that the northeastern city lies near the border of the world's biggest drug consumer and largest exporter of guns, though the correlation begins and ends with that statement. But the film's frustrations melt away in a transporting final image of Ulises dancing, at least for a serene moment or two shutting out the chaos of the city below.

Production companies: Panorama, in association with PPW Films, Wanavision, Margate House Films, Bengala
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Juan Daniel Garcia "Derek," Angelina Chen, Jonathan Espinoza, Coral Puente, Tania Alvarado, Fany Tovar, Luis Leonardo Zapata "Leillo," Yahir Alday, Leonardo Garza, Yocelin Coronado, Adriana Arbelaes
Director-screenwriter: Fernando Frias de la Parra
Producers: Alberto Muffelmann, Fernando Frias de la Parra, Gerry Kim, Gerardo Gatica, Rob Allyn, Alejandro Mares, Regina Valdes
Executive producers: Gabriel Nuncio, Conor Allyn
Director of photography: Damian Garcia
Production designers: Taisa Malouf Rodrigues, Gino Fortebuono
Costume designers: Malena de la Riva, Gabriela Fernandez
Editors: Yibran Asuad, Fernando Frias de la Parra
Casting: Bernardo Velasco, Esra Saydam

112 minutes