The Precocious & Brief Life of Sabina Rivas: Film Review

Sensationalistic storytelling and heavy-handed performances reveal this feature’s TV-drama affinities.

Luis Mandoki’s contemporary melodrama, set on the Mexico-Guatemala border, centers on a teen orphan from Honduras who has aspirations of becoming a singer.

Distilling the conflicts of a dozen evening soaps (official corruption, teenage prostitution, illegal immigration, gang violence) into theatrical format, Mexican director Luis Mandoki’s overheated feature devalues legitimate human-rights concerns with lurid situations and risible caricatures. Film fests that take the bait may regret their good intentions, while TV audiences will schedule it alongside their telenovelas.

Titular Sabina (Greisy Mena) is an underage teen orphan from Honduras crooning pop tunes topless (along with providing lap dances and other client services) in a shabby Guatemalan hostess bar located opposite the southern Mexico border. Convinced she has a bright future as a singer, Sabina plans to traverse Mexico so she can slip into the U.S. to make her fortune, but after paying bar owner Lita (Angelina Pelaez) a share of her wages, she always ends up chronically short of cash for the forged passport and visa she’ll need for her journey.

Temporarily entering Mexico while illegally working sleazy parties for Lita’s wealthier clients, Sabina runs afoul of a corrupt border guard (Joaquin Cosio) and his gringo immigration agent handler (Nick Chinlund), both of whom freelance for a dirty military officer smuggling drugs. Even after several beatings and a brutal rape, Sabina never loses her determination to emigrate, no matter the risk. Finding refuge with a like-minded group of outsiders, she still can’t escape her tragic past and a fraught relationship with her violent gang-member brother.

Recognizing that screenwriter Diana Cardoso (adapting Rafael Ramirez Heredia's novel La Mara) stirs up more than enough melodrama to cram into a single movie, Mandoki drags the episodic, repetitive narrative out for nearly two hours. Performances prove far from persuasive throughout – Mena is particularly ill-served by the flamboyant script, forced to alternate among a series of increasingly degrading scenarios. Other roles adhere primarily to stereotype, whether it’s Pelaez as the tough but kind madame, Cosio as the corrupt border official or Chinlund in the part of the brutal, ruthless gringo.

Although serviceable, Mandoki’s directing lacks distinctive style, rarely lifting the film above the mundane and occasionally sensationalistic, reiterating a pattern that soon proves wearying. Overall production credits are otherwise passable.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Production company: Churchill and Toledo
Cast: Greisy Mena, Joaquin Cosio, Fernando Moreno, Angelina Pelaez, Beto Benites, Nick Chinlund, Mario Zaragoza, Tenoch Huerta, Dagoberta Gama
Director: Luis Mandoki
Screenwriter: Diana Cardoso
Producer: Abraham Zabludovsky
Executive producer: Perla Ciuk
Director of photography: Damian Garcia
Production designer: Antonio Munohierro
Costume designer: Adela Cortazar
Music: Alejandro Castanos
Editor: Mariana Rodriguez
Sales: Shoreline Entertainment
No rating, 116 minutes