'Trash': Rome Review

Rio de Janiero Film Festival
Slick, sentimental and far from trashy, this favela-set dramedy has a broad underlying appeal

Stephen Daldry's latest co-stars Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara alongside a talented Brazilian cast

The film may be set in the lively, and sometimes deadly, favelas of Rio de Janeiro, but the story couldn’t be more Hollywood than in Trash, director Stephen Daldry’s Brazilian crowdpleaser about three penniless teenage boys who battle corruption in their own crafty ways. Filled with numerous plot twists, street chases and upbeat vibes that will conquer the hearts of Western viewers seeking a safe foray into Third World territory – and one for which they’re accompanied by the do-gooding Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara – this energetic cross-cultural affair resolves local issues in a manner that only temporarily sojouring filmmakers can devise. Still, there’s no doubting a certain passion among crew and cast, most notably the trio of native youngsters whose antics provide a solid level of action-packed dramedy.

Not to be confused with the 1970 Paul Morrissey cult classic of the same name (which, in that movie, refers mostly to the characters themselves), this $12 million Working Title production and Universal worldwide release should see decent returns following a festival run with stops in Rio, Rome, Abu Dhabi and Stockholm. But it’s unlikely Trash will rake in the same kind of cash as Slumdog Millionaire – a film to which it will inevitably draw comparisons in terms of content, characters and its catering to the masses, but one that relies less on narrative conventions and easy sentiments.

Viewers familiar with the tense Brazilian crime film The Elite Squad and its underrated sequel, The Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, will recognize star Wagner Moura in the opening minutes of this similarly-themed story, although here he plays a good guy named Jose Angelo who’s quickly chased down by a squad of cops, but not before he tosses a wallet filled with incriminating evidence into a passing garbage truck. Hours later, it’s picked up by 14-year-old favela dweller Raphael (Rickson Teves) who, along with his best bud, Gardo (Eduardo Lewis), spends his days sifting through trash at a nearby dump to earn a few reals.

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Raphael pockets the money but soon realizes that the purse has far greater value, especially when a wickedly crooked police officer (Selton Mello) shows up to reclaim the missing item, which we learn has links to a rich and corrupt congressman running for mayor. Forced to flee their slum in search of both safety and answers, the two boys team up with fellow street urchin Rato (Gabriel Weinstein), heading into town during one of the movie’s better set-pieces, where they’re chased throughout a crowded train station and perform all sorts of impressive parkour stunts to escape.

From then on it’s off to the races, although the screenplay – by rom-com veteran Richard Curtis (Love, Actually), adapting from a book by Andy Mulligan – slows things down enough to introduce an American priest (Sheen) and volunteer teacher (Mara) offering their services to the favela dwellers, and who soon find themselves mixed up in the action. Yet the foreigners seem to be around mostly for comic relief or chosen feel-good moments, while a subplot involving Mara’s character is given extremely lightweight treatment – as if these people were only added to bring marquee names into a mix of unknowns, further conditioning Trash’s box office potential.

If such decisions take away from the film’s overall impact, making for a hybrid result that’s half authentic and half cloying, Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Reader) is smart enough to concentrate on his strengths, which includes reaping strong performances out of his young actors, especially newcomer Teves – memorable in one particularly grueling sequence where Raphael gets banged up in the back of a police car. Altogether, the three boys are a joy to watch, urging us to believe in their quest even if the script never quite justifies their obsession with finding the truth at all costs, rather than simply making a few bucks.

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Indeed, there’s a sentimentality on display here that sometimes borders on pandering, offering up easy solutions to real world problems that are anything but. Like the alleged 2,000 cubic meters of “clean trash” that was lugged in by the production team to recreate the dump setting, the filmmakers seem to be lugging in ideals that have been absent from likeminded movies made by native directors – such as Hector Babenco’s Pixote and Fernando MeirellesCity of God – where happy endings aren’t always so guaranteed. (Meirelles is credited as executive producer here.)

At best, Trash works as a vibrant, occasionally suspenseful postcard-portrait of a place that’s always great to see on the big screen, with DP Adriano Goldman (August: Osage County) doing justice to the myriad alleyways, roadways, shantytowns and beachfronts where Raphael tries to do the right thing and not get killed in the process. To accompany the nonstop eye-candy, the movie provides a jubilant soundtrack filled with local music choices, including hip-hop tracks by MC Cidinho, swelling choral numbers by percussion ensemble Barbatuques and a cover of the Os Mutantes ‘60s psychedelic favorite, “A Minha Menina.” You can blame all that on Rio.

Production companies: Working Title Films
Cast: Selton Mello, Wagner Moura, Rooney Mara, Martin Sheen Rickson Tevis, Eduardo Luis, Gabriel Weinstein, Nelson Xavier
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenwriter: Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Andy Mulligan
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kris Thykier
Executive producers: Bel Berlinck, Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Fernando Meirelles, Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Adriano Goldman
Production designer: Tule Peak
Costume designer: Bia Salgado
Editor: Elliot Graham
Composer: Antonio Pinto
Casting director: Chico Accioly

No rating, 113 minutes