‘Upon Open Sky’ Review: Sharply Acted Road Trip Drama Follows Teens Seeking Revenge

Mexican novelist, screenwriter and occasional director Guillermo Arriaga made his name in the film realm penning multi-threaded dramas about the ripple effects of tragic incidents. “Amores Perros” and “Babel” stand out among them. Now the scribe’s cinematic legacy turns into a family affair with his children Mariana and Santiago Arriaga making their feature directorial debut via a searing coming-of-age road trip movie their father wrote.

But don’t expect the breezy sexiness of something like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También.” Despite featuring adolescent protagonists, this journey into maturity holds major emotional stakes but few flutters of careless abandon. As is common in Arriaga’s scripts, the tale finds its potency in the intricate moral grays of the human condition, here portrayed through a collection of strikingly incisive performances by the young cast.

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Set in early 1990s Mexico, “Upon Open Sky” begins on an empty desert highway. Twelve-year-old Salvador (Theo Goldin) is heading to a border town in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila with his father (Manolo Cardona) for a hunting trip. A handful of scenes showing the pair stopping to eat or pump gas denote a close and tender bond. In the blink of an eye, however, their world shatters when a semi-truck violently crashes into them.

The vast arid landscape, whose rugged beauty cinematographer Julián Apezteguia will evocatively exploit for much of the running time, stands as the only other witness to the deadly collision. Salvador survives, but his beloved dad does not.

Two years later, back in their upper-middle-class home in Mexico City, Salvador’s older
brother Fernando (Máximo Hollander), a brooding presence, plans to travel back north to kill the truck driver involved (played by an excellent Julio Cesar Cedillo of “Narcos” fame). To Fernando’s dismay, their clever stepsister Paula (Federica García), a recent addition to their lives after the boys’ mother remarried, invites herself and her boyfriend on the trip.

“Such is life, right?” says Paula of the repetitively simplistic way the soap operas that enthrall her depict good and evil, where the irredeemable villains often meet a gruesome end, and the heroes and heroines have no qualms about their righteousness. Salvador disagrees, his father’s killer is alive, after all, and Paula has yet to discover how the clear-cut fictions on the small screen differ from the complications of a flesh-and-blood existence.

That the film unfolds in the ’90s makes it plausible for these kids to embark on such adventure by car on their own. Today, the dangers associated with cartel violence would render it a terribly reckless idea. Aside from period-specific songs and commercials, Guillermo Arriaga imbues the dialogue with slang pertinent to that era in Mexico.

There’s a youthful rage running through the central trio laced with sporadic sparks of innocence, a combination that the actors convincingly manifest. We can fully believe these characters are acting on impulse without a clear plan, but a desire to attain some modicum of justice. The dynamic between them, once they lose Paula’s arrogant romantic partner, grows from prickly animosity to a complicity of unwavering loyalty with each passing kilometer. Through every mishap, Ludovico Einaudi’s score, which calls to mind the music of classic Westerns, inspires both a sense of longing and a stirring hopefulness.

Though “Upon Open Sky” doesn’t follow a multilinear structure, the Arriagas effectively put each of these siblings on separate tracks toward personal growth. Salvador faces a conflicted sexual awakening, while Fernando slowly loses his standoffishness giving in to warmth. For Paula, who’s lived a sheltered childhood, the experience seems even more transformative in that it confronts her with the complicated shades of human behavior — including her own.

Goldin dons his take on Salvador with a disconcertingly quiet demeanor — a ticking time bomb of resentment waiting to explode. Meanwhile, the cold conviction Hollander imbues into his role repeatedly reminds us of the mission’s dangerous purpose. But it’s ultimately García who strikes the most powerful chord, especially in one instance late in the sundrenched drama that sees Paula summoning a furious determination the brothers lack.

Some of the metaphors at play, such as the notion that dead animals are left to rot on the side of the road, read a tad blunt, but fit the boys’ implied lifelong relationship to nature, namely hunting for sport. In one thematically compelling scene that mimics the inciting car crash, Fernando accidentally runs over goats crossing the road, but rather than running away, the teens acknowledge that their mistake affected others and accept their responsibility.

When they finally find the man responsible for altering their lives, the implications of such drastic pursuit of revenge directly confront them. It isn’t as simple as punishing this man for what he caused, even if accidentally, or forgiving him entirely. Even in the aftermath of such a painful event, the possibility of choosing personal accountability still stands. Cedillo rounds out the film with a devastatingly raw turn, providing a cathartic release to the built-up sorrow that permeates “Upon Open Sky.” Like their father, this next generation of Arriaga storytellers demonstrate the ability to capture an engrossing ambivalence without easy answers.

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