Sayra is a pretty teenage girl. Under most circumstances, that's a good thing. But in the world of Sin Nombre, it's a liability.
A Honduran, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is attempting, with her family, to make her way through Mexico to Texas. She joins a grimly suffering horde that moves north huddled on top of freight trains. It's a lawless, violent milieu, and the migrants are preyed on by thugs. Mostly the thugs want money. But over Sayra also hangs the threat of sexual violence.
The story of these migrants would be grueling enough. But their journey fatefully takes them through the southern city of Tapachula, Chiapas, where a boy of 12 or so named Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) is being inducted into a street gang called La Mara. The ceremony consists of Smiley being brutally beaten and kicked by his new brothers, including his good friend, a young man called Casper (Edgar Flores). After the beating, Smiley is tenderly kissed by the gang's boss, the sinister, ominously tattooed Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), a memorable movie villain.
The beating of Smiley is one of many violent scenes in a gruesome film. In one, a terrified La Mara rival is told he will be killed and fed to dogs. Then he is killed and, vividly, fed to dogs. The violence might be merely gratuitous, except that we know Mexico these days really is racked by brutal organized crime, and that terrible events really do befall migrants making their way to the U.S. And the violence is doled out amid thriller-style scenes of suspense and dread, and even lightly romantic moments. This is a taut, thoughtfully made film, no mere exploitation shocker.
The gang rival's murder is committed by Smiley and Casper, their hands ritually clutching the same gun. But even as he kills for La Mara, Casper fears his gang and especially Lil Mago, because he has a secret. The girl he loves lives in a neighborhood controlled by La Mara's enemies. This fact eventually emerges, with harrowing results. Soon after, Smiley, Casper and Lil Mago encounter Sayra and her family on the train, with still more harrowing results.
A knot developed in my stomach as I watched the opening scenes of Sin Nombre, and it never went away. This is an unpleasant film. But it has important things to say about poverty and families - and about hopeless young men who, absent better options, find consolation in gangs. It goes on in Tapachula, but that's not the only place where it goes on.