To support himself and his family while pursuing a filmmaking career, the Mexican American director Rodrigo Reyes has worked as a court interpreter. It was in this capacity that he met Sansón Noe Andrade, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who landed in California’s Merced County as a boy — and who, in 2012, at the age of 19, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for serving as a driver in a gang-related shooting.
The sentence infuriated Reyes, who would later refer to it as a life “being thrown away.” He became determined to make a documentary about Andrade’s case, but was thwarted by carceral bureaucracy. Denied permission to conduct on-camera interviews with Andrade, he conceived a meta-documentary of sorts; “Sansón and Me” is the result.
Traveling to the town of Tecomán, where Andrade’s alcoholic father was a fisherman until he died in a car accident very early in his son’s life, Reyes meets members of Andrade’s extended family and “casts” them to re-enact scenes from the young man’s life.
The film is an unusually layered look at how the combination of privation, misplaced familial loyalty and just plain rotten luck can make the immigrant experience in America a nightmare. As Andrade’s letters to Reyes reiterate his aversion to gangs, both outside and inside prison, the viewer’s curiosity about how the young man got into this fix is stretched almost to the point of exasperation. This is perhaps part of Reyes’s point: How much do you need to know before you decide to extend compassion to his subject?
Be that as it may, it makes for a lopsided viewing experience at times. Ultimately, though, discomfort turns to outrage, and Reyes makes the case that an appalling, albeit commonplace, injustice has been done here.
Sansón and Me
Not rated. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. In theaters.
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