An innocent crush propels fourteen year old Lalo’s descent into the criminal underworld of illegal gasoline extraction. What begins as a fast track for the latest smartphone quickly veers into a deadly fight for his life.
The Gasoline Thieves, aka Huachicolero, which premiered at the Tribeca Film festival, is a striking and beautifully humanistic thriller set against the world of illegal gasoline extraction in Mexico. Giving us no cordial beginning the film opens with a brutal confrontation between rival thieves before introducing us to the young man who will soon be drawn into that same world of criminal fuel trade. Stakes are set and we are treated to an expertly crafted thriller that, as of right now has ranked as one of the best films of 2019.
Why would Lalo (Eduardo Banda), a relatively stable kid with a good home and a caring mother wander into the deadly world of fuel theft? A young man of humble means, we are introduced to Lalo’s world. He and his mother live in a modest, but dignified home in rural Mexico. At school, Lalo notices fellow student, Ana (Regina Reynoso) and begins to develop a crush on her. The first thing he needs is a gift to present to her and he decides on the lofty and very expensive smartphone as a gesture of affection. This will take some money, of course, and he sets out to earn the cash.
After a family emergency, and leaner times at home, the only real choice for making any kind of money is by working with the cartels responsible for stealing fuel. Lalo keeps this from his mother of course, she would never approve. Tangled in a moral dilemma of theft for a greater good, Lalo’s conscience is soon assuaged by his ability to attempt to win over the girl of his dreams and help at home. As Lalo’s new boss Rulo (Pedro Joaquín) reasons, the government is keeping the gas for themselves and we are just stealing it back to sell at a reasonable price. The only real warning that Rulo offers his new employee is that one false move would result in death. Somehow this point doesn’t exactly register fully and Lalo remains on the job.
Then things get complicated.
I think that what makes The Gasoline Thieves work is the adroit script by Alfredo Mendoza and Edgar Nito that takes a story that could fall into cliché and raises it to the level of an ingenious dramatic thriller. The characters live in a real world of real circumstances, desires, and danger. Nito, who also directs the film, keeps a very heartfelt and dignified approach to the portrayal of these characters, most of who, live in desperation. We are carefully reminded that despite the struggles they face, their moral compasses and human compassion are what ultimately drive the choices they make, even when they make the wrong choices.
Banda as 14-year-old Lalo is a revelation of talent. The less observant viewer would deem his facial expressions as almost flat for the entire film. Yet, he appears to convey a myriad of microexpressions that subtly communicate the waves of emotions boiling just under the surface. As Ana, the love interest, Reynoso is again never given to opportunity to be a catty or vindictive, instead she delivers a naive and effective performance that keeps us understanding why Lalo would be interested.
The Gasoline Thieves is one of the best films of the year so far. As the film played out to its climax I found myself lured deeper into the entirely believable world of characters. I was given the chance to connect and identify with making their painful moments which made the shocking and tragic moments all the more powerful. From innocent to criminal we are never offered a simple, one-sided look at simply what they are doing and how it affects others. We see how it affects each of them on an internal level. Yes we got a great story, a phenomenal thriller, but we were also given a chance to connect with a world we might never have known existed. That, right there, is the power of cinema.