Miami 2020 Review: LOS LOBOS, A World Too Big and Too Small
A new country, a new city, a new home, can mean hope for renewal and improvement; but it can also mean despair and desperation. For the thousands of people who have crossed the Mexico/USA border, forced to leave their countries for fear of their lives, or just wanting a better life for their children, the constant strain of trying to earn enough money for the barest survival, while maintaining a fascade of happiness and constantly for your children, can be unbearable. And for the children, who have yet to comprehend the complexities, it is unfathomable.
Samuel Kishi's sophomore feature Los Lobos looks at this migration mainly through the eyes of two young boys as they struggle to understand why they have to wait. And wait. And wait. Based on his own immigration experience, Kishi weaves a heartbreaking, at times upsetting, but ultimately hopeful tale of those who are just trying to keep themselves alive.
Lucía (Martha Reyes Arias) has come to the Albuquerque from an unnamed Latin American country, determined that her sons will have a better life. She manages to find a rundown and unsanitary tiny, unfurnished apartment (at least it's cheap and the kindly Chinese landlords don't require references). But the jobs she is able to find (for little pay) force her to leave her sons in the apartment all day. She gives them a set of rules, the first of which is that they cannot leave. Promised a trip to Disney, the brothers Max and Leo (played by real-life brothers Max and Leo Nájar Márquez) must find ways to entertain themselves, among growing feelings of restlessness, fear, and resentment.
The spaces they occupy always seem either too big or too small; the outside offers space to run but no space to hide, even as it is alluring with sunshine and other children. The inside of their apartment might afford safety, but it is also confining, and the boys very quickly are growing out of it. As the younger, Leo still finds joy in simple things such as playing with his brother or the arms of his mother. But Max, as the elder, shouldered with the responsibility of caring for his brother, just old enough to understand that something isn't right, chafes against his role.
The boys try to live as much in their imagination as they can; but it's a world in which harsh reality seeps inside. The brother draw their alter egos, the 'ninja wolves', in crayon on the walls, and animated sequences let us into these adventures. These are also premeated by tape recordings - of their grandfather singing, their mother's instructions, english lessons - the absense of voices they can listen to in person is substituted by this 'absent' parenting. Their mother tells them that their father (whose wallet Max keeps like a talisman) died 'by lightbulb' - which to Max sounds romantic, but when he learns what she means, it's both a blow to his psyche and a help to his wider understanding of why they had to leave their home.
While Kishi makes us aware of the pressure on Lucía and the lengths she goes to to protect her children, he also doesn't sugar-coat it; her understandable anger, frustration, and daily struggle are visible to us and her sons, and there is only so much she can do on her on. Kishi make sus aware of the people around her; the kindly landlady Mrs Chang who takes it on herself to look after the boys; the neighbours who might seem mean at first, but who are also struggling; and moments of the inhabitants of this city, who can never seem to rise to an even decent standard of living due to the society which is designed to keep them down.
But neither does the film leave us without hope, for there are kind words and moments that can keep the family going. Working in the same realm as recent films such as The Florida Project and Tigers are Not Afraid, Kishi combines realism with fantastical elements, pushing us through how a child processes information and emotion in situations over which they have little understand or control.