For those still hesitant to regard the immigration movie as a genre in its own right (as if last year's A.O. Scott think-piece wasn't confirmation enough), its recent splintering into various multi-genre narratives should be sufficient proof. After February's appalling Crash-meets-Short Cuts Hollywood ensemble immigration movie Crossing Over, Sleep Dealer marks the genre's first sci-fi entry (save, arguably, Blade Runner).
Politically, Alex Rivera's feature debut has a sharp moral compass, even though its narrative lacks a certain finesse. The film opens on near-future Mexican farmlands, where our hacker hero Memo (Luis Fernando Pentilde) listens to his father groaning about the loss of cultural memory (get it, Memo, memory?) as the two walk to the local water distribution area. Shortly thereafter, Memo unwittingly intercepts a U.S. military transmission, then watches on live reality TV while a futuristic bomber is dispatched to his home and kills his father. Riddled with guilt and with no means of supporting his family, Memo heads to Tijuana–a shantytropolis pressed up against a Gaza-like U.S. border wall–where he procures some illegal nodes (think eXistenZ's ports plus The Matrix's plugs) and starts working in a networked outsourcing plant.
Like Alfonson Cuaron's Children of Men, the uncanny world Sleep Dealer takes place in is more interesting than the characters leading us through it. Pentilde is infuriatingly flat in the lead, and even the arrival of one of the most interesting female characters in the immigration movie cycle can't buoy the tiresome dialog and forced chemistry. Freelance blogger Luz (Leonor Varela) meets Memo on the bus to Tijuana and keeps seeing (and connecting nodes with) him after her first upload about him sells well on the memory market. The story eventually shifts away from the morally conflicted and narratively empowered journalist to focus on the conflict between Memo and the Mexican-American remote fighter pilot who killed his father. Generational respect, cultural memory and daddy issues finally take over, and all the interesting ideas about journalism that Sleep Dealer almost addresses are lost.
Unlike Children of Men, Sleep Dealer's effects can't pick up whatever slack the actors leave in their gentle wake. Certain tricks work–the neon glow of the cords Memo's nodes plug into for 12-hour shifts and the construction robots in San Diego they allow him to control, the liquid display where Luz blogs her video memories, the Cops-style military reality show "Drones". More often, though, cheap digital effects and frequently reused shots detract from the originality of Rivera's vision. As a first entry in a young director's career and a young genre's cycle, Sleep Dealer is very promising, but also leaves much to be desired.