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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 10.11.13] Mexico drama

It's been made abundantly clear over the last few years that the Mexican drug war has devastating consequences for those directly involved but also for bystanders that are unknowingly drawn into that world. Considering the wide spread and far reaching arm of the drug cartels, the events that unfold in Amat Escalante's Heli don't feel like a one in million situation and in fact, the story is partially taken from Mexican headlines.

Armando Espitia stars as the titular Heli, a young married man who shares his home with is wife, their new born baby, his young sister Estela and their father. Estela is in love with Beto, an older teen who is training to join the special police who are waging war against drug dealers. Wanting to run away together, Beto devises a plan to steal some cocaine and sell it for money to fund their elopement. Under the cover of night, Beto does the deed, shows up at Estela's place and hides the drugs for later sale. It's here that Heli's idyllic (though by no means easy) life takes a turn for the worst.

It's easy to see why Escalante's movie has received praise since its debut at Cannes earlier this year. It's a well made film featuring the fantastic cinematography of Lorenzo Hagerman and a story of the brutal realities of life in areas rife with crime but Heli doesn't bring anything new to the table and quite frankly, Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala from a few years ago covers very similar ground in a much more interesting and entertaining manner.

That's not to say that Heli is without merit. As previously noted, the camera work here by Hagerman is excellent, capturing Heli's rural setting with an almost ethereal beauty while also highlighting the harshness of the surroundings. Heli and his family live near a car manufacturing plant and for miles around there's nothing but empty fields and desert. There's a sense that this is a difficult place to survive but Heli's home life, though it seems poor by most North American standards, is good. He has a job, a loving wife and though there isn't much money, the family seems happy. The first thirty minutes of Heli, in which Escalante sets up and captures Heli's family life, are by far the movie's best and while the second half unfolds in expected drug drama style - Beto and Heli are tortured and though Heli survives to recount his tale, he still has to deal with the death of his father, his missing sister and the fear that at any moment the kidnappers will return to cause even more trouble - it's not as interesting as Heli's family life.

One bothersome aspect of Heli is the detachment with which the story is told. Though we're given the chance to get to know Heli and his family, there's an observational aspect to the way the story is captured that leaves the audience emotionally distanced from the characters. In some ways, this works to the movie's benefit (I love that Escalante doesn't highlight the violence but simply plays it out with the expectation that it speaks for itself – and it does) but I didn't feel much of a connection to any of the characters.

Though well made, Heli is too procedural for its own good and lacks the emotional punch to make it memorable.

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