The LA Film Festival brings us a bold local product (from Mexico), Los Bastardos. Jesús and his younger friend Fausto (estimable first-timers Jesus Moises Rodriguez and Rubén Sosa) are Mexican day labourers in LA. They wait with the others outside the downtown Home Depot, go on a job, drink beer in the park. So far so usual. Except they’ve a sawn-off shotgun in their backpack and they were picked up already that morning for a “quick and easy” job about which they’ve agree not to blab. Something is afoot.
We know from the off that something cinematic is afoot as well: an interminable static shot shows two tiny figures approaching down the early morning concrete of the LA river and we wait and wait for them to pass the panning camera and clamber up the side. Frames are carefully composed; shots are held; gradually, as the pair prove themselves to be the most unhurried house-breakers in the world, tension builds. The Chekovian law of guns is obeyed and the finale shocking, although so meticulously (and startlingly) well-executed that the preceding restraint can’t help but smack of a cinematic excuse for one remarkable shot – some of those long takes might more honestly have been used on the day’s ditch-digging – and its impact is unhappily tainted with gimmickry.
Race plays its part, of course: the white folks at Home Depot are gently mocked, but their condescension is primarily class-based; the pair encounter a far more unpleasant form of cowardly aggression in the park but their resentment is implied to stop short of anything more than intimidatory vindictiveness, if only in the name of staying out of (unpaid) trouble. Rather, the sense of otherness is reinforced, and the absurd futility of having undergone hellish hardships for the very bottom of a socio-economic ladder when they could be getting drunk to celebrate El Grito the following day.
So the formalism is slightly forced, the “unexpected” developments are pat, the characters are under-drawn to the point of being generic, and the affluent white mom (Nina Zavarin), despite a game display of middle-age spread, is not a good enough actress to transcend the poor English-language scripting. But moments of humour hit home, the labourers’ camaraderie is as believable as the wretchedness of their situation is palpable, and following the remarkable finale, a strawberry-field coda unexpectedly merges the human and the political in an outbreak of emotion at a secret all the more terrible for the certainty that it will never be exorcised by judicial punishment. Ambitious, admirable and affecting.
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