A misguided attempt to mix together social realism, children’s adventure, and political thriller, Stephen Daldry’s Trash never sits still long enough to be any of those things. It’s about three boys living in the Rio de Janeiro slums who pick through the city’s massive piles of garbage for a living. One day, Jose Angelo (Wagner Moura), a man being chased by some crooked cops, desperately tosses a wallet onto a garbage truck, and one of the boys retrieves it. When the cops come to the slums looking for the wallet and offer a thousand reais for its retrieval, these kids realize there’s something more going on, and decide to find out on their own. The movie intercuts between the cops and the boys, between Jose Angelo (seen in flashbacks) and the boys, between the crooked pols and the boys, sometimes between the boys themselves. It’s always intercutting — in an attempt not just to suggest all the ways in which these people are connected, but also perhaps to keep the film’s strangely pointless story from dissolving into and-then-and-then tedium. It doesn’t work.
More than anything, this is a chase film, but not a particularly inspired one at that. There are chases through slums, chases through streets, chases through a cemetery. There’s a mysterious ledger. There’s a bag full of money. There’s a missing girl. There’s a Bible code. (This movie doesn’t have just one MacGuffin, it has all the MacGuffins.) There’s Martin Sheen playing a kindly, drunken priest working in the slums. There’s Rooney Mara playing a social worker who tries to educate these boys. Everything is strung together with little purpose or specificity; you won’t learn much about Brazil or its favelas from watching this movie, nor will you even learn much about these boys. The film is too preoccupied with chase scenes and with the next missing-object-that-has-to-be-retrieved to ever feel like it’s about anything other than propelling itself. It’s more scavenger hunt than story.
Trash was adapted by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, About Time) from Andy Mulligan’s children’s novel of the same name, which itself is set in an unnamed Third World country and was reportedly inspired by Mulligan’s experiences in Calcutta. Maybe that’s the idea — that human misery and poverty have a universal quality, especially to a child. There’s also a suggestion that in these kids’ impulsive actions might be found the inner workings of grace — religious motifs and symbols abound throughout, particularly at the end — but again, the film is too caught up in the inane dynamics of its generic plot to do such an idea justice. Watching Trash, I was reminded of two superior Danny Boyle films about children on the run: the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and the terrific Millions. Whatever else one may think of them (I’m aware that not everybody’s a fan of either, especially Slumdog), they at least have the sense to embrace their respective milieus, giving their characters shape and purpose. Curtis and Daldry might be reaching for universality with their tale, but they wind up with anonymity instead.