TIFF 2021 Review: A Disappearance Reveals a Criminal Network in Justin Lerner’s Harrowing “Cadejo Blanco”

A natural instinct kicks in for Sarita (Karen Martínez) as soon as she sees her sister Bea (Pamela Martínez) threatened in “Cadejo Blanco,” even though Bea warned her about what would happen once they got to the club. Sarita hadn’t wanted to come in the first place, content to stay at home with their grandmother and uncomfortable with dressing up, but she’s steadfast after making decisions, so even after Bea informs her that they’re there to see Andres (Rudy Rodriguez), a guy she hooked up with a few weeks before and has to tell him that she’s pregnant, she adjusts to the situation at hand and doesn’t think twice when Bea tells her part of why she’s so afraid of him is because of his association with a local gang.

Sarita may think she should’ve confronted Andres when she had the chance in the days that follow when Bea ends up missing, but in Justin Lerner’s sumptuous and simmering thriller, she would never let that on. Instead, she takes the knowledge that she never met Andres at the club to reintroduce herself as Analu, hoping to infiltrate his gang and get to the bottom of her sister’s disappearance when local authorities take no interest in the case. The film, which was born out of Lerner’s time in Guatemala, talking to real teenage gang members in Puerto Barrios where it isn’t uncommon for bodies to be left in the street from drug deals gone awry, resembles Gerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala” as a story that drifts on the periphery of the criminal underworld with Sarita’s search for her sister driving her inside, the deliberate 180° camera pivots surgically deployed as if she’s circling the drain and giving a panoramic view of the supply chain that eats its young.

However, Lerner, always a bit of a provocateur with such films as “Girlfriend” and “The Automatic Hate” where a central relationship might be considered taboo, gives Sarita’s journey an extra bit of edge when she isn’t only an enigma to Andres and the gang she tries to gain entry into, but also the audience when she realizes she has the right constitution for a life of crime and has to wonder what she has to lose if she continues on, irregardless to getting closure on her missing sister. Martínez is a real discovery as Sarita, boasting remarkable conviction that makes every questionable decision she makes feel as if it’s the right one for her, and the casting of Rodriguez as Andres is equally canny, throroughly inhabiting a young man full of primal impulses who hasn’t entirely let his innocence go in spite of all the things he’s done.

Although Lerner never overemphasizes the allusion, it can feel as if Sarita has crossed over into Neverland after she proves herself to the gang, full of lost boys – and girls – who have largely already accepted death as an ultimate and early outcome of their lives and act without fearing consequence, a subversive notion of freedom that enlivens “Cadejo Blanco” until the very end. That the amoral choice is often presented as the easier one makes every moment in the film where someone shows the slightest bit of compassion for someone else enormously affecting and as Sarita starts to no longer recognize herself as she looks for Bea, Lerner shrewdly observes how tending to her own emotions becomes paramount. She may not love the person she’s become, but in a community that has internalized the idea that their lives are predetermined by where they’re born, the mere notion that Sarita has given herself a choice in the matter packs a punch that can’t be pulled back.

“Cadejo Blanco” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the Guadalajara Film Festival from October 1st through 9th.