British director Stephen Daldry's Rio-set dramatic action-thriller "Trash" is a carefully engineered crowdpleaser liberally channeling his countryman Danny Boyle's Oscar-sweeper "Slumdog Millionaire". The fatigue brought on by the déjà-vu's weighs heavily on the film, even if it's a perfectly serviceable, sometimes rousing piece of popular entertainment in its own right.
Centered around three 14-year-olds living off a dumping ground whose lives are changed upon the discovery of a wallet, the movie is firmly plot-driven and sprints forward at a brisk pace all through its 2-hour running time. The script, adapted by Richard Curtis, is nicely structured to always be teasing with the next clue to the mystery. Aided by some able editing work, its parallel narrative shows diversity but remains readily digestible. Even though the story itself can't really be called original, it has an effective hook and shines a light on the problems of social unjust, political corruption and police brutality in Brazil, which are easy targets of course, but nonetheless pack with them a pressing sense of gravitas. A fundamental weakness of the screenplay, however, lies in its inability to render the motives of the young protagonists believable. Unlike "Slumdog", which smartly reduces its heroes' travails to such commonly relatable pursuit of romance within an instantly recognizable environment of a quiz show, the justification offered here for three impoverished teenage boys' selfless, life-threatening quest for truth- the repeatedly uttered "It's the right thing to do"- just doesn't fly as well.
And while both movies feature young characters constantly fleeing, dodging, leaping across rooftops and off windowsills, "Trash" doesn't spark the same level of immediacy or urgency. There's a chase sequence involving the transport of a Bible later in the film that's well orchestrated, famously shot and cut, leading in a tight, pulse-quickening last half hour, but before then the cinematography is agile in a more latent, unspectacular way. The flawed sound mix, including the less-than-precise dialogue dubbing, also contributes to a perceptible distance to the action depicted. That said, Daldry doesn't make ugly movies. Whether marine blue or mud-colored, every frame of the film is delicately shaded, thoughtfully lit and taking full advantage of the expansive Latin American cityscape or coastline. It's a lot of grimy prettiness to look at.
The three previous non-actors taking on the lead roles here are understandably not consistent in their acting. Failings show especially in scenes with extended verbal exchanges. The very unpracticed quality of their body language, however, enables the capture of brilliantly guileless expressions that would be otherwise hard to get. Except for some over-acting on the part of Martin Sheen, the supporting cast that also includes Rooney Mara and Wagner Moura is fine, if none of them has been given any heavy-lifting to do. Veteran Brazilian actor Nelson Xavier makes a very memorable appearance in one single scene set in a prison, selling with his forceful presence the fierce but merciful, alert but unagitated temperament of someone long given up hope of seeing the light of day again.
Hard to dislike for its general soundness and uplifting spirit, this movie has a little something for everyone. In its attempt to broaden its appeal as much as possible, however, it might have stayed a bit too close to the middle of the road to dazzle, to rock, to wow.