The Gasoline Thieves,” (‘Huachicolero’), the debut film from Mexican director Edgar Nito Arrache, explores modern social realities in a very traditional narrative, an extremely pure distillation of a crime story that hearkens back to 1930s Warner Bros. gangster films or a more action-packed work of Italian neorealism. The unadorned narrative might not hold many surprises for seasoned filmgoers, but conveys its themes with heartbreaking clarity, aided by a keen visual sense and a relentless pace.

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Lalo (Eduardo Banda), a gangly fourteen-year-old with an expressive and guileless face, lives an ordinary life with ordinary desires. He goes to school, earns a little extra cash for his family by lugging gas cans for Don Gil (Fernando Becerril), and pines after his schoolmate Ana (Regina Reynoso). However, Ana already has one admirer, Rulo (Pedro Joaquin), and when Lalo asks her out, she’s extremely forthright about what separates the two boys – money. She wants a boyfriend who can buy her an iPhone, and after hearing this, Lalo immediately tries to get a higher paying job, by asking the only people he knows with spending money, Rulo’s crew that delivers gas to Don Gil and others. Soon, Lalo is a part of the team, breaking into gasoline fields and stealing straight from the source, an inherently dangerous practice made even more deadly by the competing armed gangs that fight for territory. Lalo enjoys his newfound wealth and also can woo Ana, but eventually, his actions put him on a lethal collision course with Rulo and the powers that be.

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There’s little deliberation by Lalo over whether he should or shouldn’t steal gasoline, because he sees it as the only option for advancement in his impoverished hometown. Once he joins the crew, the leader gives him a speech about how the government that sets overly high prices are the real thieves, whereas Lalo and company are merely harvesting what lies in the ground beneath their feet, working the land as anyone should be able to do. The stinging irony of the story is that even before he consciously decided to join up, he was already a small cog in this illegal economy by carrying gas cans to farmers for Don Gil; he was just too far down the totem pole to threaten anyone.

“The Gasoline Thieves” benefits from sharp camerawork by Juan Pablo Ramirez. During the day, he finds great beauty in the dramatic desert landscapes, but his nighttime work is even better – not afraid to let darkness dominate the frame and make excellent use of deep shadows and the dark enchantment of burning gasoline wells against the pitch-black sky.

The eye-catching cinematography and nuanced social consciousness elevate this lean crime thriller. “The Gasoline Thieves” is a promising debut and marks Nito Arrache as a talent to watch, part of a compelling wave of rising Mexican directors. [B+]

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