Crimes are committed every second of every day, but while some are cold and calculated others began someplace far more innocent and naive. Such is the journey that young Lalo (Eduardo Banda) finds himself on after the girl he likes tells him she wants an iPhone. Ana (Regina Reynoso) says it half-jokingly as an explanation of how a boy should go about wooing a girl, but Lalo takes her words quite seriously. He works hard carting gasoline between Don Gil (Fernando Becerril) the supplier and various local buyers, but when his mom gives his savings to a relative in need, Lalo shifts his focus to the more lucrative and dangerous world of the Huachicoleros — the gasoline thieves.
Director/co-writer Edgar Nito‘s feature debut (co-written by Alfredo Mendoza) is as timely a crime drama as you’re likely to find, and while its core motivations are familiar the setting and specifics offer insight into a fresh hell of desperation and suffering. The film moves viewers through situations both touching and tragic with a connective tissue built on intense interactions and visuals. It’s a sad and terrifying world at the heart of The Gasoline Thieves, and it’s made all the more affecting and effective knowing that for many it’s a very real world too.
Criminal enterprises big and small have worked to steal things belonging to others for as long as those other things have existed, but the theft of gasoline has become a booming business in today’s Mexico. Small groups of men and teens liberate the liquid from pipes running beneath the ground and sell their haul on the black market, and as with any lucrative criminal endeavor the profits lead to violence. Lalo lands right at the start of the line and begins helping to extract the gasoline, but in a world where competition leads quickly to violent murder it’s a career path with grim prospects.
This is a film focused on the criminal element, but for Lalo it’s a story built recklessly on heart and human connections. The film delivers relationships of varied construction — son and mother, boy and girl, thief and mentor — and Lalo’s role in each serves as a betrayal to the others. Juggling is a skill most of us lack, and his attempt to do just that with his varied responsibilities and interests seems destined to lead to disaster. He’s not the only one interested in Ana, and while corruption, greed, and malice surround him the biggest threat comes from a place far more personal and emotional.
Newcomer Banda gives a tragically hopeful performance as a teen who only wants to earn a girl’s affection. He’s no idiot, but he’s simple when it comes to the heart — he loves his mom and forgives her trespass into his savings, he wants to love Ana and takes the quickest path to being her boyfriend, and he even believes he and his boss are good friends. It hurts watching him trip his way into trouble, and it’s due as much to his performance as it is to the realization that many of us tread equally as blindly at times.
The film surrounding these performances is every bit as beautiful thanks to Nito and cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez. They capture the warmth, both real and presumed, between characters as sharply as they do the coldness enveloping them. The visual appeal of the photography never tries to hide the ugliness of the situations, and while gorgeous shots (like the one above) highlight the stark beauty of a fierce flame against the dark of night the film remains most interested in pitting innocence against inevitability.
The Gasoline Thieves is a real-world tragedy told through a fictional lens, and while Lalo is merely a character his struggle — against poverty, criminal elements, and his own human behavior — is one undertaken by millions of people in the real world every day. The film is an entertainingly suspenseful thriller without that knowledge, but it’s an important one with it.
The Gasoline Thieves had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2019.