“Where the Tracks End” is an affectionate appreciation for the broke, small town schools that were the rule in much of Mexico much longer than they should have been, and the inspiring, intrepid women and men who made it their mission to teach the rural poor.
Based on a novel by Ángeles Doñate, this sentimental film — titled “El Último Vagón” in Spanish — follows four children as they form friendships and have adventures during one year at Malinalli Tepehpatl, a one-room escuela in a train car where the aged, devoted and compassionate Miss Georgina presides.
The great Mexican actress Adriana Barraza, of “Babel” and the Sam Raimi horror gem “Drag Me to Hell,” plays Miss Georgina, who meets little Ikal (Kaarlo Isaac) after he’s befriended some of her students. He’s 10, and hasn’t really been to school since his railroad laborer-dad (Jero Medina) moves the family to wherever tracks need to be replaced.
That’s kept the kid illiterate, if self-possessed enough to not take any guff from the older, taller and bullying Chico (Diego Montessoro) in their “gang.” Ikal is sweet on Valeria (Frida Sofía Cruz Salinas), and as his illeterate father doesn’t object and the kid has nothing better to do, so he agrees to join Miss Georgina’s class.
“Discipline!” she preaches. “Focus! Use that brain God gave you!” (in Spanish, with subtitles, or dubbed into English).
With a little help from her collection of comic books, the kid starts to learn to read.
Meanwhile, he and his mates (Ikal Paredes plays train-obsessed Tuerto) are pondering their futures, stumbling across corpses, raiding a local ranch for food and drink, adopting a dog — Quetzal, and dreaming of going to the a tiny traveling circus which has a lady magician, a clown, a tightrope walker and an exotic transgender knife-thrower.
But outside forces are staring at Mexico’s many under-funded rural schools, and deciding it’s time to “combine resources” by closing them. School inspector Hugo Valenzuela (Memo Villegas) is the guy with that thankless job, visiting schools small and packed, well-kept or worn out, and delivering the same news.
Director Ernesto Contreras (“Cosas Imposibles”) never quite lets this picture cross over into picaresque. The sweet tone is rarely due to laughs. It’s a tale with tragedies, big and small, and the sword of government funding cuts hangs over this piece of the recent past.
His movie may be entirely too sentimental, but it simply and beautifully summons up memories of other Mexican, Spanish and Italian tales of impoverished but plucky childhoods.
And Barraza makes a fine representative of that universal icon, the teacher who makes a difference. The kids are adorably real, facing lives whose horizons broaden every day they spend in this old railcar with the old woman with failing eyesight who lives in the back of that “vagón.”
Rating: TV-14, implied violence, teen smoking and drinking
Cast: Kaarlo Isaac, Adriana Barraza, Memo Villegas, Frida Sofía Cruz Salinas, Ikal Paredes, Diego Montessoro, Fátima Molina and Jero Medina.
Credits: Directed by Ernesto Contreras, scripted by Javier Peñalosa, based on a novel by Ángeles Doñate. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:36
Very sentimental movie, is just a picture of the reality of my lovely and corrupt country, but on the other side shows the passion of some educators that give to their students a piece of hope and love.