Chicuarotes (dir. Gael García Bernal, 2019) – In a bid to escape poverty, two youths become involved in increasingly dangerous crimes.
Aboard a public bus, Cagalera (Benny Emmanuel) and Moloteco (Gabriel Carbajal) launch into an unsolicited comedy show, putting forth their best face paint and puns. “We would rather do this than to be criminals or thugs,” the teenagers proclaim.
But when their act fail to make a cent from their indifferent audience, they instantly give up their idea of an honest living. Turning to the alternative they had denounced only seconds ago, they rob the now rapt passengers at gunpoint.
The excellent opening scene in Chicuarotes makes it clear that the pair’s petty crimes are destined to escalate in severity and not wit, out of their desperation to leave the poorer suburbs. There would be no lavish scheme for their attempt to graduate from rags to riches, only the thoughtless ploys and poor decisions of two reckless youths.
It is a tense watch as their rash acts play out. They are not simply acting upon a desire to leave poverty behind, but a burning need to escape. Cagalera and his mother Tonchi (Dolores Heredia) have been suffering at the hands of an abusive patriarch Baturro (Enoc Leano), who has no qualms spritzing insecticide into his stepson’s face.
Such circumstances push Cagalera close to the edge, though by no means, excuse him from his cruelty and lack of regard for those around him. The film invites even less empathy for Moloteco’s wordless compliance, never questioning his friend once despite his discernment of what is right, if only because of his undeserving loyalty.
The inevitable consequences only seem like what they deserve, which is a shame for a film that clearly aspires to be more. A more powerful story that could have been instead plays out in mere glimpses of the boys’ vulnerable moments. The actors’ strong performances remind us of how disproportionate their young age and inexperience are to the crimes they turn to.
But it becomes harder to sympathise with them as soon as they abduct the young son of the local butcher for ransom. While Moloteco appears to recognise the immorality of his actions, Cagalera is too caught up in his own world to see what he has truly done. This brash lack of a plan hits the skids soon enough, inadvertently sparking the ire of their community and fuelling a witch hunt.
The fallout implicates not just Cagalera and Moloteco but the people around them, raining down disproportionate repercussions on those who had nothing to do with their crimes. A near sexual assault makes for an infuriating conclusion, leaving little room for the redemption arcs that turn up too little, too late.
Though well-acted and worth a watch for the performances alone, Chicuarotes never quite lives up to its narrative potential and evocative premise.