‘I Am Gangster’: Film Review

Three young Latinos follow different paths overshadowed by L.A. gang violence.

Gang life in Los Angeles is a constant in I Am Gangster, Moritz Rechenberg’s debut feature about three young men whose lives aren’t as partitioned off from each other as they might like to think. A sprawling and ambitious film that seems to want to be a kind of defining portrait of this scene, its drama doesn’t always live up to its intentions. Credible performances from newcomers should endear it to fest audiences, but wider prospects are iffy barring serious support from tastemakers.

Though characters seem to tumble forth at the outset, Rechenberg is most interested in three: high-schooler Rio (Gilberto Ortiz), who writes graffiti under the name Cyko and struggles with bullies; Miguel (Abraham Bobadilla), a hardcore gang-banger who kills someone in cold blood in the opening scene; and Flores (Rick Mancia), a corrections officer who may well find himself locking either of these two in a jail cell before long.

The Bottom Line

An issue-driven debut that doesn’t totally live up to its ambitions.

Though we see enough of each man’s private life to understand his motivations to some extent — even if we hardly sympathize when Miguel violently pushes for increased stature in his aunt’s crime organization — none offers the kind of viewer-surrogate moral framework most films of this sort provide. Rio, though seemingly smarter than his peers and gentle at heart, goes along too readily with bad-news acquaintances; Flores, a new prison guard getting an education from coworkers in how to abuse his authority, puts up no fight that we see when they make him part of their no-snitching brotherhood.

Instead, Rechenberg focuses on making us feel like we’re silent observers moving within their world. He and DP Lyn Moncrief frame scenes tightly with a handheld camera that tags along restlessly; for much of the film, we follow behind characters so much that we can identify the backs of their heads more readily than their faces. (An abundance of facial tattoos makes the latter job easier.) The quasi-documentary approach suits Rechenberg’s no-frills, realistic dialogue, but doesn’t keep it from growing mundane over the course of the longish pic.

The action becomes more familiarly story-driven as the film progresses, especially as we watch Rio’s first encounters with an attractive new student (musician Kelli Wakili, credited here as Kelli Strader). But the screenplay fumbles some attempts to tie things together, offering abrupt moments of violence whose motivations we feel we ought to understand but don’t. Nihilism may be the most fitting attitude in one of these instances, but it is jarring in the others — especially in a film whose interwoven structure suggests an intention to make sense of a world outsiders don’t understand.

Venue: Dances With Films Film Festival
Production company: Reflektiv Film Company
: Abraham Bobadilla, Gliberto Ortiz, Rick Mancia, Mario Ardilla Jr., Kelli Strader
Director-screenwriter-executive producer: Moritz Rechenberg
Producer: Ralf Weinfurtner
Director of photography: Lyn Moncrief
Editor: Augie Robles

Production designer: Brandon Mendez
Costume designer: Victor Sandoval
Casting director: Zora Dehorter
Composer: Kelman Duran

In Spanish and English

Not rated, 106 minutes