Ernesto Contreras has the ability to spot poetry in the smallest of things. Even the title of his 2017 film, I Dream in Another Language, speaks volumes about the kind of world it engages in. However, it is one thing to spot poetry and completely another to be able to capture it. He is able to spot tenderness and truth in the world around him, but what appears to be the problem is the translation of that poetic truth on screen. His 2017 film suffered from the same problem of not being able to take a moment of truth to the next level, and that’s what happens in Where the Tracks End. It is the story of a boy named Ikal living in a railcar in rural Mexico and how he manages to scrape through the troubles of living a life on the margins.
There are multiple ‘tracks’ that the story takes with the inclusion of the teacher, who is determined to teach the young to read and write. Along with that, there are the parents of Ikal and his friends, with whom he partakes in some adventures around the settlement. Intercutting all of this is a young man working for the government, who is given the task of visiting small public schools across the country and telling them that the schools are going to be shut down owing to a new education policy. These are all strong enough elements to drive forward a story of hope and resilience; however, with the makers’ inability to make the emotions come out of the frames, there is a strong sense of distance felt between the characters and their lives. Contreras shows potential with the way he chooses to tell the story, but he cannot hide from the inconsistencies in the screenplay that scar the narrative as a whole. As a result, apart from some isolated sequences that speak to your heart, the film is scattered and doesn’t know where to keep its focus.
Doing a quick Google search and reading up on the blurb of the film gives out a completely different promise for the story. That, coupled with the lucidity in the title, completes the feeling of euphoria. The logline stresses on the teacher of how it’s her story of making the kids learn amidst difficult circumstances to come out of a life of poverty. It resembles the American film Freedom Writers, where an idealistic young teacher wants to make a difference for students leading troubled lives on the streets. The motive of education ends up becoming a major boom for the students in the film. However, Where the Tracks End is not about the teacher and her quest to make the kids study.
There are hardly any evocative scenes in the classroom, and those that do exist, suffer from an underwritten capacity. When the teacher tells Ikal something along the lines of he is free to do what he wants and can never be caged, none of what is being said manages to resonate well. There is a constant sense of forced feeding of emotions through dialogue and scene structures that don’t come up organically but jump out of the rhythm of the film. Ikal starts to feel something for his friend Valeria, and just to take their story ahead, the two are given a short track in the story where they go out and spend time with one another, saying mature things to each other. The motive for this is again clear, which is to establish a strong bond between the two. However, with such hurried scenes, there is not a single thump in your heart for them. The same is the case with the relationship that Ikal develops with other kids who feel more driven by the screenplay structure than their emotions.
The film opens with an exploration of the kids in the wild, where Ikal is pushed forward by others and comes across a dog that becomes his first friend. He is then introduced to Miss Georgina, who urges him to study and takes private classes for him. Throughout the entire journey, it remains unclear what it is that Contreras wants to say. There is some talk of education and its importance; there is some talk of finding one’s individuality and also of staying hopeful. It all stays true in bits and pieces that don’t come together to create the magic prevalent in the title. It is shot wonderfully by Juan Pablo Ramirez, reminiscent of the poetry of the countryside coupled with a nostalgia for childhood. His frames speak of tenderness and evoke the fresh extravagance of youth. Yet all of the wondrous beauty is seldom actualized in the story, which ceases to go anywhere, and so the individual moments fail to leave any impact. All of it is further joined together with inconsistent editing, with characters disappearing for a long time and then coming back again, leaving a sense of stretch. With too many characters also comes the responsibility of having a proper resolution for them, and the runtime never does justice to anyone other than Ikal. Then, as the film progresses into the third act, the narrative fastens further, with some scenes written out in complete haste and new decisions made that straight out hit no man’s land.
Filming children and letting out their emotions on screen is a tough nut to crack. Iranian filmmakers have pioneered this in an extraordinary manner by taking the camera to the child to reveal the way they look at the world; on the other hand, Where the Tracks End feels like an adult pushing the buttons on the story of children such that the actual innocence and charm never flash out well. All that being said, it is not a completely wasted effort, as the performances provide some respite and moments of relatability with the kids. You can’t help but shed a tear or two toward the end while also making your lips smile with affection. The concluding 20 minutes prove to be a treat to watch, with a small twist that eases many things and brings out a complete circle. It would have helped further if the film was allowed to spread its wings completely to reveal the horizon of its actual colors, which it had the potential to reach.