The police in Rio de Janeiro “treat poor people like trash.” So says young teen Raphael (Rickson Tevez), in case you hadn’t already grasped the double entendre of the title. When Raphael discovers a really nice, surely accidentally discarded wallet while working as a trash picker in a massive Rio landfill, he shares the cash with his pal Gardo (Eduardo Luis), and then the two are off on a sort of treasure hunt to unravel the meaning of the other mysterious items in the wallet, including a train-station locker key, photos of a little girl, and a calendar with strange markings on it. The fact that a mean police detective (Selton Mello) comes nosing around offering to pay a reward to anyone who finds the wallet seals the deal: Raphael must discover who the wallet belongs to and how it happened to end up at the dump, and he is certainly not going to turn it over to the cops.
Adapted by screenwriter Richard Curtis (About Time, Pirate Radio) from the young-adult novel by Andy Mulligan, this is a odd mishmash of a flick that swings from a humanizing social realism of desperately poor people who spend their days wading in garbage and sewage, to chase thrills that lead us all over favela mazes, to simplistic drama about political corruption and the activism that opposes it. It all feels like it adds up to a film that is much longer than it actually is, with weirdly misplaced comic elements sprinkled about with the same sort of abandon as moments of horror are. (If you don’t want to see a child tortured by villainous police, even though it’s presented in a somewhat circumspect manner that assures you that the child actor was in no danger at all, skip this movie.)
Director Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Reader) gets credible, unforced performances out of his young cast of untrained actors — which also includes Gabriel Weinstein as Raphael and Gardo’s sidekick Rato — but their treasure hunt feels ridiculously contrived, and puts a facile face on the very real problems and potential solutions they uncover. And the adult cast — which also features Martin Sheen (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Amazing Spider-Man) as an American priest and Rooney Mara (Her, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as his assistant running a church and charity operation in the favelas, and Wagner Moura (Elysium, Woman on Top) as the owner of the wallet — are all put in the thankless position of supporting the boys on their unlikely and implausible adventure.
Trash isn’t a children’s movie — it’s mostly in Portuguese and requires the viewer subtitles, for one other big thing — and yet, it kind ofis, too. It’s very realistic in its depiction of the hardships of its characters’ lives, which will be too much for preteens, yet its triumph-of-the-kiddies attitude is too naive for older kids and adults. I don’t know who the audience for this film is… or if it even exists at all.