The child stars of Stephen Daldry’s fantasy family thriller shine bright despite a faulty plot, writes Mark Reynolds.

 

Stephen Daldry has a track record of wringing nuanced and believable character portrayals from untrained child actors, and in that respect the director of Billy Elliot and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn’t disappoint with his latest offering.

Trash, adapted from Andy Mulligan’s Carnegie Medal-shortlisted Young Adult novel of the same name, tells the story of three street kids from a Rio favela who make a valuable and mysterious discovery at the dump where they work as rubbish pickers. Newcomers Rickson Tevez, Eduardo Luis and Gabriel Weinstein play the three friends – Raphael, Gardo and Rato – who find a wallet containing cash, an identity card and other personal effects, and set about uncovering its secrets.

That the wallet also contains clues to far greater treasure becomes clear when a corrupt police officer proposes an eye-popping reward for its return, and the boys are soon on the run from brutal lawmakers as they unravel a twisting trail of city-wide corruption.

The chase scenes through the favela and around the city are fast-paced and brilliantly choreographed, ticking the boxes of a solid family thriller, and the boys bring their own lively personalities into the mix via unadulterated gestures, body language and dialogue. It’s a bold move to have shot the film mostly in the boys’ native Portuguese, but the subtitling never detracts from the fizzing action.

Where the film falls flat, however, is in the plotting. Starting out as a gritty drama, a kind of City of Kids nod to executive producer Fernando Meirelles’ finest hour, from about halfway in the realism is undone by unlikely plotting. Daldry says the production was strongly led by workshopping with the child stars, but the simplistic moral code that ultimately informs the film provides a less than convincing flavour of the abiding injustices and hierarchies of favela life.

How much the sugarcoating is down to the kids’ strong religious beliefs or to serial crowd-pleasers Richard Curtis and Daldry’s trusted storytelling tics is moot when the effect is to kill the earlier drama. There are good news stories to be found within the world’s notorious slums and shantytowns, but these are generally founded in a basic human instinct to support family and community, not in the kind of implausible interventions and outcomes the filmmakers (and presumably the original novel) opt to impose.

That said, the three mischievous, worldly yet wildly optimistic kids at the film’s heart are sparky and engaging, and there’s a decent chance each one of them will build on this experience to rate among the great character actors of their generation. Dropped-in Hollywood names Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara have star billing and perform adequately in their limited roles, acclaimed Brazilian actors Wagner Moura and Selton Mello as the wallet’s doomed owner and the ruthless bent cop each put in a forceful shift, but it’s the three boys who are without question the leading lights.

Trash opens in cinemas across the UK on Friday 30th January.

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