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'Innocent Voices'

Based on the experiences of co-writer Oscar Torres, Innocent Voices is personal in the most limiting sense: a memoir of war-torn El Salvador presented—with a heaping side of nostalgia—from the perspective of someone too young to understand it. For more than an hour, schmaltzmeister Luis Mandoki (Message in a Bottle) directs as if on assignment for Miramax. After his father splits for the U.S., 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) assumes duties as man of the house, makes eyes with a cute girl, and rages against the civil war in his own ineffectual, adorable way (e.g., dancing through the streets to "I Will Survive," emanating from a contraband radio). The sporadic violence is so bloodless that explosions function as a kind of design element. Eventually, harder times arrive, bringing with them a new set of contrivances, as Chava is almost gunned down alongside two of his peers—Mandoki drags out the moment for maximum suspense—and struggles with pulling the trigger when faced with a kill-or-be-killed proposition. It may have all happened, but it certainly seems touched up. The scene where Chava distracts his siblings from gunfire by playing with cosmetics is perfect shorthand for the film as a whole.


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