Elsa is a six-year-old Tohono O'odham girl whose father has to go to work at his job as a tracker working with U.S. Border Patrol. While waiting for her caretaker to arrive, she comes across another little girl, Ena, a migrant who has crossed the border but has been separated from her mom and is searching for her father.
Elsa tries to help the girl, who speaks only Spanish, and they wander in town looking for food and a grownup who can understand Ena. As they wander, Elsa takes her new friend around the lands where she lives, in Sells, Arizona, eventually finding her grandmother, who can speak Spanish and helps bridge the gap between the two little girls.
Written and directed by Jefferson Stein, this gentle yet incisive Oscar-eligible short drama -- is a lovely, somber portrait of a young friendship between two innocent girls, rendered in beautifully naturalistic cinematography and spare but elegant storytelling. But within its languid rhythms and observant perspective, it also captures the environs of Sells, Arizona, the capital of the Tohono O'odham Nation and its tribal businesses, and the uniquely tragic perspective that its location offers on the plight of migrants, and how outside pressures wear away at the community.
The narrative is told from the perspective of a child, and it takes advantage of children's simplicity, emotional directness and moral clarity as it charts the friendship between the girls, played by young performers Amaya Juan and Zuemmy Carrillo with great appeal and understated sensitivity. The young girls don't speak the same language, but they understand one another as children do, through play, behavior and instinct. As they wander throughout the reservation on their small but vivid adventures -- eating tortillas, trying to get into a casino to get snacks -- Elsa shows kindness, generosity and an understanding of Ena's simple human needs for a full belly and a friend, even as they travel among unsettling signs of the fallout from border crossings.
When Elsa finally finds her grandmother just before dinnertime, they finally have someone who can translate between the two girls. But it's also as if the adult perspective enters into the film, and the simple welcome that Elsa offers Ena begins to shift into something more complicated. The final scene of "Burros" is a masterful and melancholic balance of tones, weaving the beauty of Native culture with a resigned sadness at the complications of the outside world. Through an elder's wise but painfully honest words, Ena realizes that, as far as she's come, she has much longer to go until she arrives at a place she can call home. In one piercing moment, she realizes the uncertainty of her future. And so a blossoming friendship must come to an end, as does the innocence of two young girls in the face of harsh realities.