When you’re making a film about three street urchins taking on sleazy politicians and brutal cops in contemporary Brazil, there’s a particular onus to get it right, especially when you’re Stephen Daldry, whose filmography is composed exclusively of Best Picture nominees.
Political corruption is such a hot-button topic in South American and child dramas can so easily fall on the side of mawkishness, both issues on which Daldry has a mixed track record. Where Billy Elliot wrung a career-best performance from a fourteen-year-old Jamie Bell as an aspiring ballet dancer, while also capturing the turmoil and hardship of life in mid-’80s County Durham, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close muddle-headedly took on both autism and 9/11, and arguably squandered the source material of Jonathan Safran Foer’s award-winning novel.
So where does Trash fall between them?
The film unambiguously takes its cues from the likes of Slumdog Millionaire and City of God. The opening scene particularly resembles Fernando Mereilles’ 2002 crime drama: Rickson Teves’ charming, curly-haired Raphael pointing a gun at some unseen figure, hand shaking. He and his friend, fellow fourteen-year-old Gardo (Eduardo Luis), work on a landfill, sorting through mountains of refuse littered with bright plastic. One day he comes across a wallet containing, among other things, a small amount of money, a flip book of a young girl, and a key.
When the police arrive looking for it, and offering a cash reward, only Raphael has the sense to realize there’s more to it than just a case of missing property. Recruiting the scrawny, blonde-haired Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) to their cause, their search for understanding leads them to the name of one José Angelo (the Mark Ruffalo-alike Wagner Moura), a senator’s aide with a mysterious logbook and millions in missing reale.
The film inter-cuts the trio’s scavenger hunt is inter-cut with Angelo’s hiding of the money, confirming that they’re on the right track while making the most of Moura’s heartfelt, strangely slight performance. Also rounding out the cast are one-time Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara, as a naive NGO worker who teaches English at a church run by the fair-minded, blonde-bearded Father Julliard (Martin Sheen).
While Mara’s role is mostly thankless, Sheen at least is able to bring a beaten idealism to the role of the alcoholic priest. His righteous fury, sweat mingling with tears, as he screams for a boy’s release from custody provides an emotional forthrightness Trash otherwise avoids. Rather than risk being sentimental or exploitative, the film is content to let its emotional beats ride, which makes them all the more poignant when they land; as in a scene where Gardo recites a letter to an elderly political prisoner verbatim.
Daldry’s direction of his cast is adept and the interplay between Raphael, Gardo, and Rato feels genuine; all old enough to be streetwise but young enough to retain innocence. Aside from the aforementioned support, the adults either aid or threaten, including Selton Mello as a dead-eyed, moon-faced political fixer.
However, neither as flashy as Slumdog Millionaire or gritty as City of God, Trash never quite scales the emotional peaks you might expect.
Perhaps in his desire to be tasteful, to avoid claims of exploitation, Daldry never fully engages with landscape of poverty, corruption, and hardship on display – it’s all background detail – and, as such, the broader narrative of corruption never hits home. The fat man on the helicopter pad with his suitcase of cash might be the baddie, but the film’s money-from-heaven climax is at odds with its message of hard-won reform.
In refusing to truly plumb the depths, Trash never quite soars – no Best Picture noms here – but it carries you along compellingly enough.