THE STORY – After a misunderstanding with a local cartel, a young man is forced to leave behind his family, friends and everything he loves.
THE CAST – Gerardo Gatica, Alberto Muffelmann, Gerry Kim & Fernando Frías de la Parra
THE TEAM – Fernando Frías de la Parra (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 112 Minutes
By Tom O’Brien
A rarely seen slice of contemporary Mexico is brought to vibrant life in Fernando Frías de la Parra’s musical drama, “I’m No Longer Here,” which has been named Mexico’s official nominee for this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature.
The Netflix film, which was recently shortlisted for the Oscar, is set in a slum neighborhood of Monterrey’s northeastern city. Like many recent depictions of lower-class urban life, “I’m No Longer Here” focuses on a street gang, though here it’s a very unusual one. The teenage members call themselves “Los Terkos,” and, led by 17-year-old Ulises (Juan Daniel García “Derek”), they’re not a criminal gang but focus instead on living the lifestyle called Kolombia that features loud baggy clothing and overly elaborate hairstyles. Central to Los Terkos’ culture is the music of cumbia rebajada, a slower version of cumbia, the Latin American dance variation of folk music, and one to which the gang members find themselves dancing for hours on end. Aside from some aggressive panhandling now and then, Los Terkos is essentially a peaceful gang.
However, this is not the case for several other gangs in the area, most menacingly, the organized crime unit “Los F,” which threatens Ulises, warning Los Terkos to stay out of their territory. One day, during a street altercation, Ulises accidentally picks up a phone belonging to a Los F member, an event that angers the rival gang. When friends of Ulises are soon gunned down, he’s warned that he and his family will likely be targeted next. To save himself and protect his family, Ulises flees across the border, finally winding up in Queens, NY, where he knows no one and can’t speak the language. Longing for the life he has been forced to leave behind, Ulises tries to carve a new path for himself alone.
Though Frías tells a familiar coming-of-age story, however, the way he chooses to tell it is not. The stories of Ulises in Monterrey and in Queens are told simultaneously as we jump locations and timelines, a technique that has both strengths and weaknesses. The narrative can be a bit confusing at times as Ulises wears the same clothes and hairstyles in both cities, so we are often never quite sure which timeline we’re in. But that drawback is more than made up for by the resonance of putting his stories side by side. Just as Ulises feels alienated in his strange new American existence, so too does he have that same distant feeling when he returns home to Monterrey, realizing that it’s not the same place that he left and questions whether there’s still a place for him there at all.
Physically, Derek is tremendously expressive as he struggles to find his way in an unfamiliar culture while still carrying his meaningful Colombian subculture inside him. He’s a terrific find. Still, it’s Frías’ showcase from beginning to end, particularly as he relies on his extraordinary visuals to help tell his tale. “I’m No Longer Here” may explore a culture that is entirely foreign to most of us, but its themes of community and needing a place to belong speak volumes.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – With its expressive visuals, Fernando Frías de la Parra’s coming-of-age drama is set in a culture that may be foreign to many of us, but its themes of community and needing a place to belong resonate deeply.
THE BAD – The story repeatedly cuts back and forth between two distinct timelines in two different locations, which may confuse viewers.
THE OSCARS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 8/10