'The Weak Ones' ('Los debiles'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Diego Rodriguez
Short but not sweet.

After his dogs have been killed, a farmer goes in search of the underage culprits in the underworld of the Mexican state of Sinaloa in this Berlinale Forum title.

Searching for Selfie might have been a more eye-catching title for the Mexican drama The Weak Ones (Los debiles), the fiction debut from directorial duo Raul Rico, from Mexico, and Miami-born Eduardo Giralt Brun. Presented as a series of short, languidly paced vignettes with absurdist overtones, this is the story of a sturdy farmer who goes looking for a 13-year-old kid nicknamed Selfie who turns out to be a member of an all-kids gang in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast.

This picaresque trip through the local demimonde and underworld is certainly attractive but never quite maintains the right tone for the material, which goes back and forth between more realistic and more surreal moments without ever settling on either. After its bow at the Berlinale Forum, this should find a warm welcome in the Hispanosphere and in emerging-filmmaker showcases.

Victor (Jose Luis Lizarraga) is a brawny blonde with a downcast, somewhat pained look — think Chris Pratt with a hangover — and he’s introduced as he arrives on the terrace of a local bar. He’s clearly a loner but somehow still manages to spill his drink on an arrogant little brat of a teenager who just arrived and whose baseball shirt has his nickname emblazoned on the back: Selfie (Joshua Estrada). “You don’t know who you are dealing with!” the kid screams as he stomps away.

Though the film is divided into chapters —  “The Killing Game,” “How to Get Rid of It,” etc. — the story is really one continuous but episodic narrative that follows Victor around Sinaloa after his run-in with Selfie and the subsequent discovery that both of his beloved dogs have been murdered. Some of the locals don’t understand what Victor is getting so worked up about: “With all the kidnappings going on, who cares about two fucking dogs?” wonders a garage owner who clearly doesn’t know Victor very well. He’s but one of a dozen or so eccentric types Victor encounters on his rambling odyssey, which offers the young farmer a purpose and especially non-Mexican viewers a peek into a world awash in a striking combination of surrealistic faces, stark landscapes and the ever-looming threat of violence.

Some of the segments are darkly humorous and filled with dialogue or wild gestures, like an encounter with a tattoo artist who tells a tall tale about a hacked-off arm he once had tattooed; the gringo who claims 13-year-olds are “the cause of all troubles” in Mexico; or the helpful black-metal fan who gets in the zone in, of all places, a Burger King. Others are disquieting bit players given prominence through tight closeups in the film's boxy aspect ratio, who say nary a word, their marked and haggard faces saying more than any dialogue ever could.

Taken together, all the non-actors offer a fascinating gallery of characters who suggest something about what kind of a place Sinaloa is and what life there might be like. But the inexperience of the filmmakers is obvious in the way the feature, which was written as well as directed by Rico and Brun, struggles to find a coherent tone for the material.

There are moments The Weak Ones feels like a sober, somber and pure point-and-shoot documentary and others where we’ve landed in a kind of overcooked, theater-of-the-absurd version of rural Mexico. There is no question these two things could theoretically exist side by side but the film only tries to suggest this by showing both, one after the other (the workmanlike, largely linear editing is credited to Rico and Jonathan Pellicer). Unfortunately, this isn’t quite enough to make it feel like the different worlds they portray could exist simultaneously within every frame.

Besides a more constant sense of the multifaceted complexity of the region, the feature would have also benefited from a generally more developed narrative throughline. The search for Selfie isn’t really a strong enough motive to glue all the different scenes together, especially because the filmmakers barely take the time to set up the conflict in the opening or resolve the question in the end, which is kind of disappointing for a movie that's already short at 65 minutes. Still, there is no denying Rico and Brun display an already developed cinematic style, especially framing, as well as an eye for what kind of faces and locations really set the region apart, all ingredients that could become the basis for a more satifying meal in their sophomore feature.

Production companies: Mendicante, Luz Verde
Cast: Jose Luis Lizarraga, Eduardo Martinez, Javier Diaz Dalannais, Javier Chimaldi, Joshua Estyrada, Eduardo Rauda, Sean Hennessey, Ulises Bojorques, Eduardo Carreon, Cruz Tirado
Writers-directors: Raul Rico, Eduardo Giralt Brun
Producers: Raul Rico, Eduardo Giralt Brun
Executive producers: Raul Rico Gonzalez, Marcela Gonzalez Guerena, Alonso Esquina, Mariana Monroy
Director of photography: Diego Rodriguez
Production designer: Ursula Schneider
Editors: Raul Rico, Jonathan Pellicer
Music: Alonso Esquina
Sales: Luz Verde
Venue: Berlinale (Forum)

In Spanish
No rating, 65 minutes