Innocent Voices depicts the brutal reality of El Salvador’s 1980 civil war as seen through eyes of an 11 year-old boy who may soon get drafted by the army despite not understanding what the war is about. Though both sides were soldiered with young boys it was the government that actively recruited all 12-year-olds and forced them to fight. Eleven year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) is about to turn but that doesn’t stop him from trying to enjoy life. Since he’s the man of the house--his father left to earn money in America and never returned--Chava wants a job so he can help his overworked mom (Leonor Varela) who quit her restaurant job to stay home and shield her three children from stray bullets. His first job comes when he stumbles upon an old bus owned by a jovial but careless bus driver (Jesus Ochoa). The two become instant friends as Chava rides the railing and calls out the stops. Meanwhile he discovers love after summoning the courage to ask the teacher’s daughter to fly paper fireflies with his friends. All the while the moment he has dreaded--his 12th birthday--looms large over his days. His Uncle Beto (José María Yazpik) a guerilla fighter on the run tries to convince his mother to let Chava live with him in the hills where it’s safe but she can’t let him go. Once he turns Chava must hide with the other boys when the soldiers come around to recruit. But he grows tired of hiding and takes matters into his own hands running off to join the guerillas where he discovers a fate worse than fighting--that of never seeing his family again. Perhaps the strongest element in the film is the surprisingly mature Padilla. Getting a child actor to perform on any level can sometimes be an exercise in futility but director Luis Mandoki manages to get Padilla able to run the gamut of emotions--joy fear the awkwardness of new love--in a very real and convincing way. While most directors would shy away from placing so young an actor into difficult situations particularly the climactic scene where Chava faces execution and watches his two best friends get shot in the back of the head Mandoki defies conventional wisdom and challenges Padilla who is most worthy of the call. As Kella Varela exudes strength despite her constant worry over her children particularly Chava whose arrival home after curfew causes her to feel rage worry forgiveness and joy in a matter of seconds. Legendary Mexican actress Ofelia Medina has a small but important supporting role as Kella’s mother--she provides her daughter’s family with their last peaceful refuge before their lives are destroyed by the army. Minor characters such as Uncle Beto the Bus Driver and Chava’s classmates all serve their purpose though Xuna Primus the classmate Chava falls in love with handles emotional scenes with Padilla with similar maturity. Innocent Voices marks the first Spanish-language film for Mandoki since the international success of Gaby-A True Story--and he’s back true to form. With Innocent Voices he has crafted a powerful and emotionally gripping film that never shies from the ugly realities of how war destroys families and makes men of boys well before their time. Sharing screenwriting credit with actor Oscar Torres on whom the story is based Mandoki benefits from his strong cast particularly Padilla; a wrong choice in casting Chava could have sunk the film. Mandoki masterfully lulls us into thinking that Chava might have some hope of living a normal life in El Salvador--he plays with friends just like any other kid. But every time it looks as though Chava is experiencing life as he should bombs explode machine guns erupt and soldiers come storming in to remind us that he’s living in the middle of a civil war. Ultimately Chava’s only escape is to America but he must leave behind his family much like his father in the beginning. It’s a nice bookend to Chava’s development: Despite the chaos around him his position as head of the family and the specter of being recruited into the army his real transformation into manhood comes when he finds the courage to strike out on his own.
Why bother with scripted material? In The Real Cancun camera crews follow 16 college kids for eight days of spring break debauchery in Cancun Mexico and record every drunken sexual and shirt-lifting moment. In true The Real World fashion casting producers went out of their way to select a diverse and uninhibited bunch that would beget enough clashes and hookups to tantalize moviegoers for 97 minutes. The ensemble includes among others strictly platonic buds Heidi and David non-drinker Alan Texas Tech party twins Roxanne and Nicole the already hitched Sarah and male slut Jeremy. Add lots of alcohol to the mix and things get interesting. The gang of drunken teens eventually peer-pressures Alan into drinking and we get to witness his life spiral out of control: "I wanna see hooties!" the former square peg hollers after his first shot of tequila. That's about as deep as it gets folks but it's doubtful anyone going to see The Real Cancun is expecting anything meaningful. Moviegoers will at least walk away from this film with two invaluable lessons: Men will discover that head-game playing women long to be pursued by virile members of the opposite sex; women come to the realization that all men really want is to get laid.
With the exception of a few players The Real Cancun cast is a pretty likeable one. One of the most memorable is Wisconsin native Laura. This kewpie thinks she has met the man of her dreams in sexpot Jeremy. But barely a day after they hook up this insensitive guy is already moving on to his next target--with Laura in the same room. You'll love how she spends the rest of the trip blatantly sabotaging his potential trysts as best she can. There's also Sky who spends several days teasing Paul into a sexual tizzy only to leave him hanging. When Paul eventually stumbles into a more receptive girl's bed he finds himself face to face with the Wrath of Sky. Duh--doesn't he get that she would have given it up had he pursued her just one more day? But with 16 teens to document it would be impossible to relate to so many different spring break experiences and some inevitably fall by the wayside. Amber Brittany and Fletch for example were either forgotten about or left on the cutting room floor. Others like Miami model Casey are simply too flaky to care about.
Helmer Rick De Oliviera previously served as executive producer on a couple of MTV series--and it shows with this directorial debut. The movie plays out like a truncated season of The Real World complete with enthusiastic introductions fights hook-ups and sad good-byes. The difference is the film is filled with R-rated bonuses including a wet T-shirt contest some grainy nighttime surveillance footage of teens bumping and grinding away and other things they can't get away with on cable TV. Here's an afterthought: wouldn't it be cool if the producers brought the kids back for a reunion special so we could find out who left Cancun with crabs? The Real Cancun of course doesn't deal with the downside of Spring Break or its repercussions. But if you let yourself be immersed in its irrelevance it actually has some enticing moments which to some moviegoers might be the nipple-pierced twins' incestuous striptease. Actually one of the funniest moments is from an outtake in which Heidi calls her mom to tell her rapper Snoop Dogg is staying at their beachfront villa. "A loose dog?" mom shoots back proving yet again that parents just don't understand.