If you were Guatemalan, chances are you’d want to leave, too; three kids, barely teens, make the decision to escape their slum-circled existence and head for the hope-filled United States, shimmering on the horizon many miles north with many dangers before it. Juan (Brandon López) leads the trio of wannabe US citizens, a tough street kid with a mean streak but also a soul, while Sara (Karen Martínez) provides some emotional balance to their quest, even though she has to hide her femininity with baggy clothes to stand a fighting chance in parts of the journey where morality is something only those with money can afford.
This is Diego Quemada-Díez’s first time as a director, though he is by no means inexperienced, having many technical credits to his name in the camera department of big American flicks (Gone in 60 Seconds and 21 Grams among them). As a result, Díez knows exactly how to capture not just the landscapes that amaze and imperil the children, but how to seize the chemistry between the young characters; Juan is a jealous, selfish individual, while Sara represents someone who wants the same thing – a fresh start in a beautiful new country – but goes about it with grace. Things are changed up not just by the numerous militarised border controls, merciless child slave drivers and the countless others who are also attempting the same trip, but by the introduction of Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), a Mayan who doesn’t speak the same language as the others but always seems to know exactly what’s going on. The young cast sparkle, despite few words being spoken for long stretches of time; Díez saw six thousand children for these parts, and it seems the hard work has paid off in the form of these young stars.
Díez has also possibly made the most political film of the year so far, without once making it feel so. When watching a train rattle through the beautiful yet harsh scenery in The Golden Dream, an overflowing horde of human bodies covering its roof like ants, it’s easy to think of this as a comment piece, an issue picture – but instead, we’re let inside these characters, and we feel what it’s like to be burning up in the sun on that train roof instead of merely looking on. And at other instances, as the burden of the journey seems to cave in any hopes of reaching that Golden-hued USA as numerous acts of evil, largely unknown to Western audiences, are enough to shock some into making accusations of ‘misery porn’. But given the power to watch through this torment is given to us by these poor children who, despite being thrown into a world of pain, unfairness, and perhaps worst of all, indifference, still retain that indispensable sparkle in their eyes.
The Golden Dream is an exceptional piece of work. At times bursting with the carefree rush of zero responsibility that all children enjoy, while at others feeling like the weight of all the adult problems in the world is crushing them at once, we want these children to succeed. Their Dream, American or Golden, is a celebration of the most aspirational parts of childhood, a fight for social injustice, and a call for an end to ignorance. Just don’t call it a road trip.