A film about growing up in your father’s shadow that mostly (and unexpectedly) examines the role of women as community pillars and violence interrupters, Sujo is the compelling new Sundance award-winning feature from Identifying Features team Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez. The father in question Josue (Juan Jesús Varela Hernández) is a sicario, a brutal gang enforcer killed early in the film by his cartel. The first chapter unfolds as young Sujo (Kevin Uriel Aguilar Luna) watches his father conduct business at a distance, purposefully disorienting passages wherein we overhear conversations. Compounding the confusion, when his father doesn’t return home, we witness a chilling scene in which he’s hidden by his aunt Nemesia (Yadira Perez Esteban) when a member of the cartel comes to exact revenge after Sujo’s father killed his son.
The film’s later passages find Nemesia raising Sujo, who spends time as a teen with cousins Jai (Alexis Jassiel Varela) and Jeremy (Jairo Hernandez Ramirez). Each is drawn to the cartel while Sujo seems to express a greater desire to move beyond the turf wars. Sujo remains protected by his family as a potential target for the sins of his father.
What ultimately follows is an escape: Nemesia quickly ships him off on a bus once the heat is ratcheted up. Sujo (now played by Juan Jesús Varela) lands in Mexico City doing odd jobs and sleeping in a dormitory to get by. Roaming around a campus, he lands in the literature class of Susan (Sandra Lorenzano) without a seat and the teacher takes him under her wing as they bond over similar life experiences.
A compelling and visceral film in which each chapter adopts its own visual style under cinematographer Ximena Amann, Sujo operates in modes of survival. We feel the danger at nearly every turn as our lead resists the pull of the cartels thanks to Nemesia, and the struggle to fend for himself in Mexico City with the hope of entering school and, later, college. Sujo somewhat stumbles in its uneven structural gambit, as the story that emerges with more feeling can come across more abrupt than the violent first section. Of course, a child growing up poor and surrounded by crime need not fall victim to the cycles of poverty and violence, and who’s to say which one of these pictures would have made for the more compelling single feature.
The later passages in Mexico City are visually different, Sujo living in a dormitory and unpacking onions at a restaurant depot in the evening and early morning. By day he’s left to his own devices, seeking out Susan’s mentorship and friendship, occasionally overstepping some boundaries she’s comfortable with.
The two periods of life could have been more elegantly intertwined in their construction. Rather they are presented as a series of chronological chapters named for the characters that enter Sujo’s life. With an inverted climax that essentially arrives in the film’s first act, Sujo resists the urge to be boxed into one genre or to be didactic. This tale is about a hard-knock life that could have very well ended before he had the chance to experience boyhood.
Sujo premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.