Sincere and sympathetic but also mostly inert, Sin Nombre offers a somewhat detached perspective on the perils of illegal immigration, through the story of two reluctant pilgrims from Latin America. Sayra (Gaitan) follows her uncle and estranged father from Honduras, heading to New Jersey to live with a family of half-siblings she’s never met. Mexican gang member Willy (Flores) joins the throngs bound for the border almost by accident, after killing the leader of his crew before the man can rape Sayra.
It takes far too long to get to the point where these tragic lovers finally meet; for nearly 45 minutes, we spend most of our time learning about the hierarchy of Willy’s gang and watching his relationship with a clearly doomed hottie from the literal wrong side of the tracks. Writer-director Fukunaga, an American, works methodically to build his story and introduce his characters, but the acting is so reserved and the writing so spare that even after all the build-up, we barely know these people.
So while it’s fascinating to witness the way that dozens of immigrants make their way toward the U.S. border sitting on top of cargo trains, and the cinematography by Adriano Goldman provides a lovely travelogue of the Mexican countryside, the emotional core of the story never comes to life, and Sayra and Willy never feel like more than two people passing each other along the road. Gaitan and Flores underplay their emotions so effectively that at times it’s hard to tell if Sayra and Willy even like each other, although at other moments the lack of histrionics is certainly welcome.
Even without overacting from the two leads, the movie still dips into melodrama as it heads toward its predictable conclusion, with a manipulative arc about a young friend of Willy’s being initiated into the violence of gang life. Fukunaga earnestly highlights important social issues, and the movie has its motivations in the right place, but it rarely feels like more than just tourism.