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26 June 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:22pm

The Golden Dream by Diego Quemada-Díez: Freedom pass

Four young teenagers face violence and desperation on the road to California in this modern road movie with clear echoes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World.

By Ryan Gilbey

The Golden Dream (12A)
dir: Diego Quemada-Díez

There is nothing new in The Golden Dream but there is also nothing stale. Cinema has not wanted for searching films about the migrant and immigrant experience. This one, which follows a clutch of teenagers inching by bus, boat, foot and boxcar towards the US from Guatemala, has strong echoes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Gregory Nava’s El Norte and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World. The freshness that the first-time director Diego Quemada-Díez and his soulful, non-professional cast bring to the material renders any sense of déjà vu irrelevant. Familiarity is part of the point. Our inbuilt awareness that millions of people endure hardscrabble lives to pursue a better future expands the breadth of what is on-screen: we know this story is but a grain of sand in the Sonoran Desert.

As the film begins, Sara (Karen Martínez) has already made the decision to head for California with her pals Juan (Brandon López) and Samuel (Carlos Chajon). She cuts her hair, binds her breasts, pulls on a baseball cap and christens herself Osvaldo. Why the charade? We’ll find out eventually.

A fourth youngster, Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), attaches himself to the group when they all hitch a ride on the same freight train. Any idealistic expectation of solidarity among the poor and oppressed is scotched by Juan’s hostility to the newcomer. His objections are macho in origin: he sees that Sara is charmed by the faltering mimes Chauk uses in the absence of communicable Spanish. There is also the uncomfortable truth that even those on their uppers will find someone weaker to lash out at. This proves true wherever the friends find themselves. There’s a recurring image of an apprehended figure forced to place his or her hands against a wall at gunpoint. Whether it is a police officer, a bandit or a kidnapper whose finger is on the trigger, the dehumanising process is the same.

If the obstacles faced by the group (the violence of border security guards and gangsters alike, the privations of life on the road) are hardly unexpected, that doesn’t make them any less frightening. Quemada-Díez served on the crew of several Ken Loach films (a detail involving stolen cowboy boots may be a reference to one of those pictures, Bread and Roses). He has inherited from that director many admirable traits, including an ability to elicit relaxed, naturalistic performances from untrained actors and a preference for camerawork that is almost invisible.

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Not that the visual aspect is immaterial to him. He pulls off a lyrical and very un-Loach-like shot of a model train wending its way through a snowy artificial landscape. And he brings some complexity to the grandeur of Latin America, all vine-tangled train tracks and sculpted deserts, which is undercut by the injustices that take place on its soil – just as the beauty of the toasted-orange skies is rendered fragile, even treacherous, by the crimes committed beneath them. A piano motif provides a bare-bones lament for this process of degradation, with a sorrowful cello and plaintive folk music taking over in moments of extreme crisis.

The political content of The Golden Dream is implicit in the film’s human element without ever coming to dominate it. Quemada-Díez loves his characters and is enthusiastic in coaxing joy from their prematurely aged and scowling faces but he doesn’t soft-pedal their fates. The irony of the title I was prepared for. The bluntness of the vision was more of a shock.