Film Review – I’m No Longer Here
I'm No Longer Here
Now available on Netflix, I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui, 2020) tells the story of identity and how it is shaped and changed through age, experience, and cultural surroundings. Written and directed by Fernando Frias, there is a rich sense of place as his narrative hops between northern Mexico and New York City, showing how characters adapt or fail to do so. Although the slow pacing may turn off some viewers, the theming is so well executed that we can’t help but be drawn in. Having a unique identity is what makes us individuals, and to take that away is like stealing one’s very soul.
We open with seventeen-year-old Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia Trevino) on the southern side of the U.S./Mexican border. He says goodbye to his family and friends as he plans to sneak into America. Through flashbacks, Frias jumps back and forth between Ulises’ time in his hometown of Monterrey and his attempts to live a new life in New York. We learn that through a misunderstanding, Ulises has become the target of a local drug cartel and must immigrate north to keep himself and his family safe. This transition proves to be difficult, since Ulises cannot speak English and his hair and clothing style immediately casts him as an outsider.
If you’re coming in looking for a well-developed plot, then you’re going to be disappointed. In fact, the step by step plot points are the weakest part of I’m No Longer Here. The appeal lies in the details and nuances that Frias and his production focus on, contrasting the differences between Ulises’ life in Mexico and America. In Monterrey, Ulises is a big shot, leader of a crew of young kids called Terkos. Each member has baggy, colorful clothes, and hyper stylized haircuts. They spend their time lounging around, walking the streets, going to parties and sitting around bonfires playing music. They’re so well known that late night parties are filled with signs and shirts representing the Terkos name.
One of the most vibrant bits involve the rhythms of cumbia music, slowed down and accompanied by a specific dance style. The dance that the Terkos crew perform appears to be a mixture of traditional old school with modern sensibilities. Ulises is often the center of attention, spinning around with increasing velocity and going from a squatting to a standing position as though gravity has no bearing on his physical prowess. As the women shuffle around the men bounce up and down between them like roosters. To my uninformed eye, it looks like a form of a mating dance, but behind the thumping beats of cumbia music and a crowd hooting and hollering in joy, it resembles something of a hip-hop dance battle. These sequences are some of the most viscerally engaging moments we get – filled with tempo and energy.
Things – obviously – slow down considerably once Ulises arrives in New York. His status as a celebrity dissolves into anonymity. His haircut and clothing that were praised in Monterrey are made fun of in New York. His dancing – which once got him on Spanish television as a kid – is barely acknowledged. Ulises spends his days wandering the city trying to find odd jobs and sleeping in random places at night. The idea of movement and transition is ever present, not only in Ulises’ name but in the constant imagery of subway trains. After taking a temporary job at a convenience store, Ulises meets Lin (Xueming Angelina Chen), a sixteen year old Asian girl who turns out to be the first person who accepts him for his differences. Although neither one speaks the other’s language, Lin’s attempts to get to know Ulises (through hand gestures and broken conversation) is sweet and in another movie may point to more romantic possibilities.
But this isn’t that kind of movie, and Frias makes it clear that Ulises’ journey doesn’t have the time for romance. His struggle is an internal one, yearning to regain the embrace of his friends and support of his family – to be a somebody instead of a nobody. The great tragedy of his predicament is that it was not of his doing. Sure, the Terkos were capable of causing mischief, but their motivation was in having fun with each other and not getting into major trouble. One running theme is the five point star – representative of the five crews of Monterrey all combining to be one whole. If anything, Frias shows us how fragile and unpredictable life can be, and how being in the wrong place at the wrong time can flip everything we know upside down.
I’m No Longer Here is the kind of movie that resonates long after you watch it. At first, we take in the deliberate pacing at face value, but as we sit back and rerun everything, the thematic connections start to reveal themselves. For those that give it a chance, they will come away rewarded. By showing the contrasts in setting, people, and cultures on display, Frias successfully binds the two together – emphasizing how the struggle for survival goes hand in hand with the struggle for individuality.