In his latest film, Stephen Daldry swaps the first-world problems that punctuate his other efforts and instead turns his attention to the slums and favelas of Brazil with Trash, adapted from Andy Mulligan’s novel of the same name.
Trash follows the fairly preposterous adventure of three Brazilian children who work all day in landfills, foraging through literal heaps of garbage to earn enough money to eat. One day 14-year-old Raphael Fernandez finds a wallet containing money, a flipbook of a young girl and a key. With the help of his two friends, Gardo and Rato, the boys – pursued relentlessly by a corrupt police inspector – keep the wallet in an attempt to solve a mystery left behind by a dead man (Wagner Moura) who sought to expose the corruption of a mayoral candidate.
As a slice-of-life insight into life in the favelas or as a buccaneering mystery adventure, Trash is not entirely compelling as either. The crisp, clean cinematography gives the film vibrancy and energy, but it is a heavily stylised portrayal of abject poverty that feels a million miles away from reality.
The score is a mish-mash of genres with a slight leaning towards hip-hop that often feels misjudged during the myriad chase sequences, which combined with the super clean visuals and frenetic camera cuts, leaves Trash feeling like a music video at times.
If Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and especially Billy Elliot has proven anything, it is that Stephen Daldry has a knack for working with children. In Trash, Daldry gets the best out of three amateur Brazilian actors who all turn in terrific performances (amusingly, according to Daldry, filming would depend largely on how tired the children were that day).
Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara co-star presumably to provide the film a wider commercial appeal, but it is Rickson Tevez, Eduardo Luis and Gabriel Weinstein who are the heart and soul of Trash. They are perhaps the one aspect of the entire film that feels completely authentic.
And while the boys are riveting, the film’s other major character, police inspector Frederico (Selton Mello), is two-dimensional as the bad guy. He does awful things to innocent people, wears dark colours, drives a black car – it feels as if the only way he could be more evil is if he grew a twirly moustache and wore a tophat.
Many films have looked at life in extremely poor areas of the world. Hector Babenco’s Pixote, for instance, is such a stark tale about street life in Brazil from the perspective of a child that a film like ‘Trash’ ends up seeming lightweight by comparison. It feels like a mixture of City of God and multiple Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire – unfortunately missing a lot of what made those two films so successful.
Introducing the film, Stephen Daldry explained how in Brazil, to his surprise, Trash plays as a comedy because the boys are so funny. Indeed, the on-screen chemistry between the three young first-time actors carries Trash, so appreciated as just a comedy, the film is serviceable entertainment. It is telling, however, that this should be the case – perhaps the reason for this is because beneath the surface of its artificially constructed landfills, Trash is too convoluted and superficial to be anything more. (5)