‘X500’: Film Review | Palm Springs 2017

Courtesy of The Palm Springs International Film Festival
Too diffuse to achieve its intended impact.

Colombian-Canadian filmmaker Juan Andres Arango’s sophomore feature shifts location across the Americas to provide differing perspectives on experiences of migration.

From national political debates to global refugee crises, human migration is a hot-button issue, but somehow writer-director Juan Andres Arango’s multilingual feature X500 manages to drain much of its urgency by focusing too tightly on a few isolated personal experiences. This follow-up to his well-received 2012 drama La Playa DC looks best suited to festival settings and perhaps Spanish-language media outlets.

Although Arango covers a fair amount of territory from Canada to Mexico and Colombia in this international co-production, there’s ample overlap in the situations of the teenagers depicted. Following the death of his parents, young farmer David (Bernardo Garnica Cruz) leaves his impoverished indigenous village in Michoacan and travels to Mexico City, where he takes the only work available as a laborer on a high-rise construction site.

The work is not only backbreaking but also hazardous, although David's domestic situation is equally perilous at his cousin’s place in the slums, where he’s required to run a gauntlet of local hoods looking to either shake him down or recruit him into their protection racket. Hanging out with a punker friend who frequents local underground clubs and fringe hairstyling salons offers his only opportunity to decompress. Dying his hair blue and shaping it into a mohawk, David finally begins to feel like he belongs in the city, but a looming confrontation with his gangbanger neighbors could force him to make some unexpected choices.

Beyond the southern limit of Central America in the coastal region of Buenaventura, Colombia, teenage Alex (Jonathan Diaz Angulo) hopes to follow his family’s fishing tradition, but all he has to his name is a leaky boat with no motor. Obliged to provide for his elderly aunt and younger brother, he seeks a loan from the local drug dealer, who offers him work instead. Unexpectedly, he’s tasked with navigating an outboard skiff through the backwaters of the nearby mangrove swamps so his boss can dispose of the apparently limitless supply of victims that he’s murdered.

At the same time, Alex considers whether he should make another bid to stow away on a freighter and attempt to slip into the U.S. again, but the bitterness of his past experience puts him off. As he watches his little brother getting caught up in the gang’s illicit activities as well, Alex realizes that bold decisions will be necessary if he’s going to help his family survive.

Thousands of miles away in Quebec, Maria (Jembie Almazan) arrives from Manila to reunite with her grandmother after her mom passes away. Enrolled in a straitlaced French-language school, she struggles to fit in and finds the city’s Filipino neighborhood a pale reflection of her former home. Kicked out of class for fighting with another student, Maria begins skipping school and starts hanging out with some street-smart Filipino-Canadian high school dropouts. Falling into delinquency, she rebels against her grandmother’s middle-class ideals and strict supervision, never quite understanding the reasons for her feelings of inferiority and dislocation.

Although his characters never appear in the same scenes, Arango alternates between the narrative strands to draw thematic parallels regarding identity, poverty and opportunity. The three principal actors are all non-pros and succeed to varying degrees in communicating their characters’ dilemmas, with Angulo giving the most notable performance as a teenage gangster in the making.

Arango, DP Nicolas Canniccioni and editor Felipe Guerrero excel at shooting their subjects verite style in dynamic situations and cutting between them to provide a sense of fluidity and forward momentum, even if the collective destination isn’t quite clear.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (World Cinema Now)
Production companies: Peripheria, Septima Films, Machete
Cast: Jembie Almazan, Jonathan Diaz Angulo, Bernardo Garnica Cruz
Writer-director: Juan Andres Arango
Producers: Yanick Letourneau, Jorge Botero, Edher Campos, Luis Salinas
Director of photography: Nicolas Canniccioni
Editor: Felipe Guerrero
Sales: Visit Films

Not rated, 108 minutes