There’s nothing quite as wonderful as seeing a mature, assured debut from a new director. It’s such a rush to realize you’re seeing the formation of someone who may blossom into a major filmmaker. I got that feeling while catching George Washington, Primer and Brick for the first time, and experienced it again while watching Cary Juji Fukunaga’s debut Sin Nombre.

The film is several things: a road movie, an immigration story and a gangland tale, all underpinned by ideas about family. The latter aside, those aspects are often superficial, however. The film is more concerned with pain and loss, and the ramifications of choice. It’s familiar ground, especially in the indie world, but Fukunaga makes his story feel as sui generis as possible without going to absurd lengths to separate his vision from others.

The story is split between two characters who gradually draw close together. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is illegally traveling from Honduras to the US, hopefully to land in New Jersey with her father and his new wife. Together with her father and uncle, Sayra rides atop a train that crosses the border between Mexico and Honduras, and which will carry them all the way to the Rio Grande.

Casper (Edgar Flores) is part of the Mara Salvatrucha Brotherhood, a gang that, among other crimes, preys on groups of immigrants using the rail system. He’s initiating the young Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) into his el Mara while maintaining a relationship with a (comparatively) upper-class girl. The gang is a family held together by an iron fist. When Casper breaks a rule or two, he finds himself on the same train carrying Sayra and her family north to a new life.

Fukunaga brings all these ideas to the screen with a remarkably confident eye. He’s equally comfortable painting with warm beauty and cold brutality. There are golden landscapes and gorgeously hazy visions of train cars crowded with illegal riders seamlessly blended with naturalistic conversations and genuinely ugly, frightening events. The director doesn’t shrink from any moment of it, but neither does he embrace any one tone too tightly.

Assisted by cinematographer Adriano Goldman, Fukunaga frequently intuits the ideal placement for his camera, and when to let it roam. Compositions are rarely calculated for superficial value as images alone; the most common and telling misstep of first-time feature filmmakers is avoided almost entirely. The film is audacious in it’s depiction of pain and casual gang violence, but not not visually ostentatious. 

If anything, Sin Nombre arguably falls into another weakness common to first-timers. While Sayra and Casper are quite naturally realized by the performances of Gaitan and Flores, they’re scripted by Fukunaga as relatively opaque. Yet we quickly understand a great deal about what has brought each one to this uncertain period of transition, and in truth that’s all we really need to know. Would a more detailed snaphot of Sayra and Casper’s pasts really add weight to the film? 

As effortless as Gaitan and Flores seem in their roles, I was most impressed by Kristian Ferrer. He travels a terrifying path from lonely, uncertain child to a cold and premature adulthood. While generally avoiding political commentary — this is a movie about immigration and poverty only in the sense that the characters are poor immigrants — Ferrer’s horrific transformation articulates volumes about the fate of similar children mired in destitution and depression.

8.9 out of 10