Homeless teens leave the mean streets of Medellin for the promise of a far-off plot of land in “The Kings of the World,” director and co-writer Laura Mora Ortega’s dark, picaresque odyssey through Colombia’s half-abandoned interior.
It’s a dreamlike journey into the hopes of reckless, under-educated kids who have nothing but each other, that piece of land and their “freedom.” And their concept of that seems borrowed from Kris Kristofferson, “just another word for ‘nothing left to lose.'” That’s what sends this broke, oft-injured and sometimes-quarrelsome quintet on their quixotic quest.
Ortega, who directed the gritty crime drama “Killing Jesus,” introduces these lads in their element in a opening act of nervous energy filmed with a jarring hand-held camera.
Bryan Andre, “Ra” (Carlos Andrés Castañeda) is 19, living on the streets, pilfering and begging and hustling, the magnet for several friends who ride busted, chainless and DIY modified “coasting” bikes, three-to-a-seat, as they look out for each other and keep each other company.
There’s safety in numbers, they must think. Because the lives of homeless kids like them are the cheapest of the cheap. Any bravado they think they’re showing by their mock machete fights won’t do them much good when they’re out of their element.
But that’s where these “Kings of the World” (“Los reyes del mundo”) are headed when Ra gets a letter from the national Land Restitution Agency. His late grandmother’s claim that she was involuntarily and illegally “displaced” from her home in rural Nechi has been heard and granted.
Ra’s dream of “a place” for them to live and make something of themselves and “be free” is coming true. Sere (Davison Florez), Nano (Brahian Acevedo) and Winny (Cristian Campaña) are up for this trek in an instant.
They don’t really know where Nechi is or how long it’ll take to get there. They’re not exactly rolling in cash. But hey, they have their bikes.
Before they can go, a first sign of trouble. Their in-again/out-again “friend” and supposed relative Culebra (Cristian David Duque) storms up full or threats and accusations. No, they’re not trying to “ditch” him. Sure, he can come.
We’ve gotten a glimpse of their support system in Medellin; the clerk at the dive hotel who keeps Ra’s mail, the bike parts scavenger who may run a whole underground economy of stolen stuff that they participate in.
The charming thing about Ortega’s film is the way the kids kind of recreate that on the road. A flatbed tractor trailer is slow enough for them to jump aboard, or grab ropes to let it tug their bikes. A farmer here, a shepherd there, even a brothel of aged sex workers take these cute, clothes-on-their-backs urchins in and feed them.
The hostility Ra encounters, just trying to buy chips at a remote pool hall, the racist customer who uses a slur on Nano, who is Black, seem like aberrations.
But this is life lived on the edge, with no safety net. Sniffing glue or sharing pills to heighten their experience of a foggy mountaintop roadside just gets them grabbed.
Oddly, the kids let themselves be taken, and as they’re driven to a remote ranch, we get a sense that the local Catholic priest approves of whatever’s about to happen to them. The dangers of kids from a hated underclass taking this trip into a lawless interior where others plainly want the land Ra plans to take possession of are just beginning.
Ortega keeps her camera in the middle of their idylls — accidentally vandalizing the fencing holding cattle in a huge field, slicing the plastic sheeting on that farm’s greenhouses as they romp through them, feasting with the hookers — and their tests. They quarrel and fight, and every time they let their guards down, bad things happen and they can only recoil in fear.
Whatever bravery we assume you have to possess to survive this way vanishes more than once. They’re still just boys.
Only Ra, possibly the oldest, seems to have a sense of purpose.
“They’re my family,” he says (in Spanish, or dubbed into English, etc). “Nobody wants them, just like nobody wants me. We’re all alone out there.”
Will that warm connection be enough to let them realize their shared dream? Ortega makes certain that every step and misstep on their odyssey is scenic and compelling, taking us through a country rarely seen on film, outside of the two largest cities. She makes us see strife and problems that have nothing to do with drug wars and civil war and poverty, and yet have everything to do with each and every one of those maladies.
These “Kings” are not a lost generation. They’re a discarded one. And what they do about that makes compelling viewing, a movie that will annoy, amuse and upset you in equal measures.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, drug and alcohol abuse
Cast: Carlos Andrés Castañeda, Cristian Campaña, Cristian David Duque, Brahian Acevedo and Davison Florez
Credits: Directed by Laura Mora Ortega, scripted by Maria Camila Arias and Laura Mora Ortega. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:43