Imagine a city where everyone dances. Some move to the rhythm of life. Others flow with the gangs and street violence that ravage their small, mountain village. Either way, everyone comes together at night to celebrate cumbia music. An entire town twirls, spins, and flutters—moving to the beat of a bongo and forgetting, for just a couple hours, the daily hardships they all endure. Dance is their escape. It’s all they have left. This is the atmosphere director Fernando Frias de la Parra brings to life in “I’m No Longer Here,” a haunting drama set in Monterrey, Mexico.

The story follows Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia), the leader of a dance crew called Les Terkos with an unmistakable hairstyle. His sideburns are shaped like knives; his bangs bob to the beat at cumbia gatherings. It’s a treat to watch him and his crew dance, whether in a dirt field or in a run-down alley. Frias finds beauty in the impoverished surroundings. But when a misunderstanding with the cartel puts Les Terkos in danger, Ulises is forced to flee for America, leaving his homeland behind.

“I’m No Longer Here” offers insights on Mexico’s drug wars, the immigration crisis, male violence, and gentrification, without becoming preachy or heavy-handed. The filmmakers take a subtle approach that contrasts nicely with most social dramas. The gentrified city neighboring Monterrey, for example, is never discussed, but those skyscrapers in the background tell us everything we need to know about this crumbling town’s future. The situation in Queens, New York, is no less stable. 

For Ulises, New York is a hell hole. Though he finds housing with fellow Spanish speakers, they mock his hair, his style, and his taste in music. But there are also flourishes of hope that linger around the edges of “I’m No Longer Here,” and they are strikingly touching.

The movie strikes a rare chord of empathy as it tangos between past and present: the poor immigrant in New York, and the flashbacks to his days in Mexico. Playing over a cumbia soundtrack that pulses with joy and regret, yearning and vitality—these flashbacks are a window into Ulises’ homeland, friends, and culture. And Frias makes the time-hopping narrative easy to follow. 

Improving on his work on HBO’s “Los Espookys,” Frias takes his storytelling to another level. This time around he’s working with a story that hits close to home—he too migrated from Mexico to New York. That personal connection extends to the cast, which is made up of non-professional actors who related to the script, all of whom are excellent, especially Garcia, whose flexibility on the dance floor is rivaled only by his range as a performer. In flashbacks, we learn Ulises was a minor-celebrity in Monterrey. Girls took pictures with him because of his dance moves. Thugs left him alone. But all that is stripped away in America. Now people take pictures of Ulises to mock him. And his confidence dissipates when he can’t find a job or place to sleep.  

Garcia’s loneliness is convincing; with his sad, droopy eyes, he calls to mind any number of great, non-professional performances that pull from real life instead of acting school. Much like Frias’ direction, his pain comes from experience. Ostensibly, this is a tragedy about cultural identity, and the way someone can feel empty when they no longer have that culture to fall back on. But “I’m No Longer Here” works best when it focuses on a single identity. Ulises commands our attention. Not for his dance moves–though that’s part of it. But for his use of dance as an escape. It’s all he has left. But is it enough? [B+]

“I’m No Longer Here” is available now on Netflix.