‘Trash” takes on greed and garbage — two issues that are linked to crucial global problems of climate change and poverty. These issues are really all part of one big family of troubles, but if one of these factors can be destroyed, chances are it might not be so hard to stomp out the others.

In “Trash,” a trio of boys living in Rio de Janeiro decide to do something about the greed thing, thinking (rightly) that if they manage to slay this monster, everything in their lives will turn out for the better.

The film is directed by Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), which means, among other things, that he can deploy child actors in a way that doesn’t demean or cute-ify them. Working with three Brazilian teens who had never been behind a movie camera, Daldry drew on their street smarts and cynicism along with the touching innocence of their facial expressions.

Director Stephen Daldry
Run Time 114 minutes
Language Portuguese, English (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Jan. 9

The camerawork is loose and fast, snaking along the tight alleyways of Rio’s slums, highlighting the feverish intensity of life in the backstreets — spaces that are pretty much defined by poverty and violence. Fourteen-year old Raphael (Rickson Tevez) has lived all his life among trash, sorting through the dumpster near his home to eke out an income. One day, he stumbles on the find of a lifetime: an expensive looking wallet stuffed with cash. So far, so lucky. But the police come looking for the wallet, and Raphael — teaming up with his buddies Gardo (Eduardo Luis) and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) — realizes the wallet contains a lot more than just money. To save their own skins, and also to put a dent in Rio’s rotten-to-the-core police system, the trio turn to aid worker Olivia (Rooney Mara) and Father Juilliard (Martin Sheen) for help and advice.

Mara is interesting to watch here, because she’s not your usual idealist who’s convinced she can change the world — she’s fully aware of her limits and aims only to keep everything from collapsing around her. Father Juilliard is even more of a realist, and when he learns that the boys have cut and run, wastes no words as he tells Olivia flat-out that they are dead without expressing a bit of sympathy. Still, they both hang onto a shred of hope, if only because the wallet and what it contains could maybe afford everyone a chance to reset the status quo and start afresh in a better social environment.

Having said that, “Trash” is a bit heavy on the contrivances, resulting in convenient escape hatches for Raphael and a somewhat rushed Hollywood ending. As a story about a boy on a quest to somehow right the wrongs of fate and society, Daldry was much more in his element in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” In that film, 11-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) walked the streets of New York, looking for clues to a mysterious key that his father (Tom Hanks) left behind after dying in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. That story was multilayered with its Holocaust subtext, which Daldry cleverly weaved into the narrative, but “Trash” unfolds on just one level, concentrating on the urgency of the here and now, without giving the characters (or viewers) enough time for thought or reflection.

In the end, the strongest objection to “Trash” is the way it glamorizes child poverty (without necessarily glamorizing the children themselves). Hunger, danger and disease are part and parcel of living among rubbish but Daldry ends up evading the hard stuff. On the other hand, who wants to watch kids suffer and starve and cry out in pain? Reality is much harsher, and a lot more terrible. If this is Daldry’s message, then “Trash” serves its purpose.

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