[Tribeca Review] The Gasoline Thieves/Huachicolero

Last October, I was skimming through Rolling Stone and came across a surprising article about gasoline thieves in Mexico. While it had apparently been a thing for years, recently it started getting more violent, particularly as drug cartels started to get involved. Then, like so many articles, it went to back of my brain and I didn’t really think about it until recently with this new movie that’s premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. A few years ago, director and co-writer Edgar Nito Arrache also heard about The Huachicoleros or gasoline thieves while visiting a friend’s farm and the thought stuck in his head, as well.

“I thought about what it would be like to construct a film about these young kids that smell like gas and walk around small towns with disposable income. It is changing the society of rural Mexico and I wanted to tell a story about this developing criminal network,” he has gone on to say. The result is an unsettling and depressing film about a young boy who inadvertently gets caught up in this burgeoning criminal enterprise.

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The film opens on a pair of gasoline thieves, in the middle of the night. They move fast. Their van pulls up to a buried pipeline and they hastily start connecting long tubes to the pumps, which start pumping the gas to their unassuming van, where giant vats are stored. As they work, another group shows up, shoots one of them in the head and then warns the surviving member to go tell his boss that this is their territory. It’s a violent and intense cold open and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Abruptly, the story changes gears and focuses on fourteen-year-old Lalo (Eduardo Banda), a farmhand who carts gasoline around and sells it while daydreaming about his classmate and first crush Ana (Regina Reynoso). Lalo is kind of socially inept and shy. When he tries to ask Ana out, she kind of laughs and schools him how it's done, by apparently showering her with gifts. The thing she really wants? An expensive phone. In order to get her a gift, the lovelorn Lalo asks his boss Don Gil (Fernando Becerril) if he can have this week’s gasoline shipment on credit, telling him he’ll pay him back next week.

Unfortunately, his mom’s cousin is sick and in the hospital with mounting bills. So his mom takes Lalo’s savings to help out, leaving him in a dangerous situation. It turns out that Don Gil gets his gas from the gasoline thieves and Lalo’s urgency for cash leads him to the local gangsters, where he meets Rulo (Pedro Joaquin) who, it turns out, has his own interest in Ana. With the cops on the trail of the network of gasoline thieves, the skyrocketing prices of gas and first love, Lalo finds himself in an even more precarious situation that threatens to consume everything.

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I didn’t quite know what to expect with The Gasoline Thieves, but man I wasn’t prepared for the disturbing directions it takes. It’s a thriller disguised as a coming-of-age story, something I honestly can’t remember ever seeing before. For the majority of the film, we follow sweet and unassuming Lalo as he tries to win the heart of Ana. Eduardo Banda plays him with a doofy charm and a sweetly goofy smile. He’s a good kid trying to act like a man. And for awhile it works, as he gains confidence, changes the way he dresses and surprises his mother with a bouquet of flowers.

In this way, The Gasoline Thieves works just like a traditional story about a boy becoming a man. But the addition of the location and criminal activity gives it a gravitas that’s missing from your typical high school-set drama. It goes through some familiar beats. There’s a crush. Broken hearts. A love triangle with a slightly older, more “manly” antagonist. A fight. In most coming-of-age stories, these would be relatively toothless and typical conflicts. But here, it’s life or death. A forbidden love can spell death. Crushes can turn deadly.

Violence is used sparingly, but when it hits, it hits hard and fast. Edgar Nito Arrache and cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez shoot the film with understated naturalism. The grim desert surrounding the story glints in the sunlight and feels homey and desolate at the same time. It makes it all the more shocking when violence does erupt. The Gasoline Thieves is a nasty little film that does not pull its punches. Some of the turns it takes as Lalo continually finds himself in more and more over his head hit me hard, even when I kind of expected some of them.

This is the second film this week I’ve seen that used genre trappings to turn a story into something completely different. Part teenage love story and part criminal thriller, The Gasoline Thieves is a stunning and gut-wrenching piece of storytelling.