Manny is a young 13-year-old boy with a sick mother. Faced with limited prospects, the smart, pragmatic kid decides to help her by sneaking drugs into the U.S.
But his first smuggle across the “Devil’s Highway,” a fatal stretch of the Arizona/Mexico border, is not just an introduction to danger, but a rough coming-of-age.
Writer-director Josh Soskin’s taut drama is a short that examines the bonds of family, the effects of poverty in the age of globalization and the dangers that emerge when the two intersect. Through precise, fluid direction and a telling eye for detail, the film manages to pack rich storytelling within its economical approach, whether it’s the wide shot that shows the sex worker plying her trade in the margins of the frame or the simple way Manny’s shoulders drop when he realizes he and his sick mother have no money.
Visually the film is remarkable, capturing the textures and light of the Mexican desert and border town, full of sunfaded colors and the heaps of worn buildings nestled in the hillsides, as well as the lived-in home of Manny and his mother, cluttered with the stockpile of those who hold onto what little they have, no matter what. The images and setting are authentic — the film was shot in east Tijuana, as well as in the Sonoran desert — but captured in a subtle, matter-of-fact way.
Much of the film’s power is carried on the weight of its young lead performer, Angel Soto, Jr., who plays Manny with a melancholy and world-weariness, showing what it looks like when children carry a burden of responsibility at much too young of an age. Even as a very young teen, Manny is intelligent, mature and conscientious, which makes it understandable why he would be driven to make such a perilous decision.
But he is also still a young child, and ultimately in over his head. As the web of drug traffickers and border police weaves itself around him, he finds himself lost — and the ultimate pawn in the winds of much more complex geopolitical realities much larger than himself.
“La Carnada” ends in a twist that is brutal in its calculation, and reveals that no matter how smart, its individual foot soldiers are, there are larger, murkier, ever mutable forces at work that no one player — or perhaps even policy or law — can outsmart. But what’s brilliant about this powerful film is that it never lets us forget the “small-scale” human cost, often made out of ordinary everyday desperation, loyalty and love.