If you’ve even so much as vaguely read any of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels or perused an old and tattered copy of Boys’ Own magazine, you might be tempted to think that life for young boys is a gripping mash-up of dodging buffoonish anti-heroes, getting into trouble that resolves itself easily and without serious harm and of course, hard-boiled eggs and jam tarts.
But in Stephen Daldry’s gripping urban thriller Trash, based on Andy’s Mulligan’s book of the same name and from a script by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Time and Again), any element of good old rollicking Boys’ Own fun enjoyed by the three captivatingly good young male leads is subsumed in the harsh, unflinchingly realities of life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling slums.
The world of Raphael (Rickson Teves), Gardo (Eduardo Luis) and sewer-dwelling Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) is dominated by rubbish collecting in the dump that sits cheek-by-jowl with their precariously-balanced homes that teeter one on top the other, a strong wind gust from toppling over into the neighbouring heavily polluted lake.
It’s a hand-to-mouth existence in which bountiful fresh food is a rarity, any form of reward or social advancement is hard won, if it happens at all, and the chance to go on grand, life-changing adventures almost non-existent.
That is until a wallet, filled with cash, a mysterious key and photos of a man and a young girl with numbers written on the back of them is found among the discarded detritus of Rio de Janeiro by Raphael, thrown quickly into one of the rumbling garbage trucks that ply the route to the dump by José Angelo (Wagner Moura) as he is cornered by police on the orders of corrupt detective Frederico Gonz (Selton Mello).
A one time right hand man to corrupt mayoral aspirant Santos (Stepan Nercessian), he has not only stolen a considerable amount of cash but put in play a scheme to expose Santos and his benefactors, a daring gambit designed to avenge the imprisonment of his anti-corruptiuon activist uncle played by Nelson Xavier.
On the strength of that storyline alone, which doesn’t hesitate to delve into the more brutal side of Brazilian life, one dominated by police victimisation, channelling of money from schools and hospitals to the bulging pockets of a “fat bastard” elite (all of whom, one boy notes, live by the beach) and a political system more responsive to the big end of town than its struggling constituents, it becomes obvious this is not your grandfather’s favourite Boys’ Own Adventure.
Even the almost stock standard figures of cynical but well-meaning and kindhearted Father Juilliard (Martin Sheen) and Sister Olivia (Rooney Mara), who are given little to do but act in a kindly, supportive manner, end up embroiled to their partial detriment in Raphael’s attempt to do “what is right” and see Angelo’s largely quixotic mission through to its end.
While it is nowhere near as gritty as say City of God (2002), which depicts the stark brutality of life in the same favelas, Trash nonetheless doesn’t shy away from making clear that these boys, amateur actors who deliver performances as real and polished as any professional and who enjoy a highly-engaging rapport that is central to the film’s narrative momentum and appeal, are up against it to an almost overwhelming degree.
It becomes potently clear that wanting to do the right thing, and being allowed to do it, are too completely different things, with the circle of intimidation and damage spreading wider and wider as clue after clue is revealed, and each twist and turn begets another, upping the danger quotient as they do so.
But the boys persist, largely thanks to Raphael’s need to see it all through, a desire driven by watching one too many of his fellow favelas dwellers be mistreated and squashed down, often violently and fatally, by police, representatives of a system now hopelessly skewed to the benefit but the people at the very bottom.
The only real failing of Trash, whose title could both refer to the environment in which the boys live or the way they’re regarded by the rich and powerful people they inadvertently try to bring down, is its undeniably feel-good ending which while crowd-pleasing, comes close to erasing all the intent of revealing the seamier side of life in Rio de Janeiro’s fetid slums.
Still, given how much the boys, and by extension the audience, have been through up to this point, and how deeply and without hesitation we have been allowed to glimpse into the underbelly of the beast, a happy ending isn’t the worse thing in the world.
It doesn’t really detract from the gravity of what has gone before it, and complements the anti-corruption sentiments voiced at the end of the film which aspire to the hope, however dim, that society can, and will, change.
That the boys reach it purely in an almost fantasy sense first seems to be Daldry and Curtis’s way of saying that grim though life can be, and remote though the chances of success might appear, that aspiring to it is worth the time and effort, regardless of how great the forces arrayed against you might be.
- Viewed Saturday 21 February 2015.