Tribeca 2019 Review: THE GASOLINE THIEVES, A Brutal And Tragic Coming-of-Age Film
The Gasoline Thieves (aka Huachicolero), the first feature-lenght film by Mexican director Edgar Nito, begins as a crime thriller, with a captivating nocturnal scene with little dialogue in which a pair of huachicoleros (one of them played by Pascacio López) scare away other gasoline thieves from "their territory”, taking the life of one of them and leaving the corpse out in the open, with all the cold blood that characterizes the pawns of organized crime.
Set in Guanajuato, where Nito is originally from, The Gasoline Thieves is another portrait of violence in Mexico by the director of Masacre in San José, the 2015 short film that was inspired by the real-life story of Don Alejo. He was the old man who, in 2010, defended to the death his ranch in Tamaulipas from the criminals who wanted to take it by force. However, The Gasoline Thieves moves very quickly to another territory, in theory diametrically opposed to that of violence: a junior high school.
In a mundane and recognizable environment -- the "salute to the flag" anthem resounds, the school escort marches, the children play... -- we meet our protagonist, the young Lalo (the debutant Eduardo Banda), and the film introduces its coming-of-age element and a conflict that is synonymous with total innocence: Lalo is attracted to his classmate Anita (Regina Reynoso) and in an outburst of courage abruptly declares his love for her.
Although in Lalo and Anita there is no trace of malice, the sloppy but inoffensive declaration of love causes that, thanks the girl’s friends and between jokes, a hint of classism emerges. They make fun of Lalo because his cell phone is not a smartphone, so he ends up deducing that, to win over Anita, he will have to buy something as expensive as an iPhone.
The people of the town that Nito portrays in The Gasoline Thieves reflect a country of inequality and a failed state. Lalo, as several of his acquaintances and other secondary characters, are involved in the fuel theft business from the first second of the film.
Also part of a rotten system are the other suitor of Anita, Rulo (an older boy, played by Pedro Joaquín), the old men who let the huachicoleros pass to the refinery's land or who distribute the stolen gasoline (including Fernando Becerril as Don Gil, Lalo’s father figure), and the typical corrupt police commander (Leonardo Alonso) who turns a blind eye when lifeless bodies appear.
In such a town, this seems to be the norm for people to earn some money in the face of poverty, or to stay safe, and there are no extraordinary motivations; in fact, before wanting to buy an iPhone, Lalo already resold gasoline. Economic problems at home (his mother's brother is sick), a debt and yes, the attraction to Anita, will simply make him take the next step, without measuring the consequences.
Thus, it seems that The Gasoline Thieves will follow a classic narrative arc of crime and gangster movies, with low-income characters whose illicit activities in a particular context allow them to ascend quickly (here the increases in the price and the gasoline shortage accelerate the rise of the huachicol). However, Nito and his co-writer Alfredo Mendoza understand perfectly their protagonist Lalo, never forgetting that he's just a teenager looking to connect with the girl he likes.
The interactions between the three young actors, Banda, Reynoso and Joaquín, provide naturalness, sometimes humor and are always colorful (with music from, among others, Santa Fe Klan, and locations in Guanajuato, in general Nito manages to get us fully into this world).
In that tenor of immaturity, of the boys not realizing that what attracts Anita is not a gift but genuine connection, of jealousy, of a coming-of-age film, we will end up remembering the violent reality in which we live, the brutality and the impunity inherent to a no man's land. The Gasoline Thieves represents a powerful debut for Edgar Nito and is undoubtedly one of the best Mexican films so far in 2019.