“Heli” has a few things in common with another entry in this year's film festival, “The Missing Picture.” In the latter, we are shown a horrific portrait of how things were during the Pol Pot dictatorship. “In the former, we are shown a horrific portrait of how things ARE, now in Mexico during the woefully ineffective War On Drugs. As such, the filmmakers do not tell their story through animation, dioramas, or any other medium that serves to bring any comfort or mercy to our viewing experience.
The title refers to an ordinary young man (Armando Espitia) trying to eke out a living for himself and his family that includes his father, his wife and their infant son, and his twelve-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara). He and his father are both factory workers, and are depicted as a somewhat naïve, working-class family struggling to stay afloat and build a better life for themselves.
However, everything changes when Estela allows her seventeen-year-old police cadet boyfriend (that she is actually planning to run away with and marry) to stash stolen drugs at her home, unbeknownst to the rest of her family. Soon, Heli and those around him are pulled into the brutal world of illegal drug trafficking. It is a world that is all the more horrifying for being depicted in such a realistic and natural way.
Teenage boys sit and watch (and eagerly anticipate putting on YouTube) men being beaten, their genitals burned, while a woman calmly works in the kitchen in the next room. Corrupt soldiers break into a home and snap a puppy's neck. A young man is hung from a bridge.
Such are the horrifying realities onscreen here, which taints and twists those it does not kill. Its refusal to pull punches resembles “The Counselor,” but while that movie focused on the top, this is the view from the bottom, in the very trenches where the war is being fought. It may be difficult to witness, particularly when we see the gentle young Heli's loss of innocence as he learns just how helpless he and his loved ones (as well as the police) are in such a maelstrom of events greater than perpetrators and victims alike. Such events could easily become exploitative, but the acting is top-notch, the cinematography is fantastic, and circumstances build and unfold in an unsentimental way that refuses to yield to melodrama.
And yet, “Heli” isn't a completely depressing ride, with an ending that seems to signal a new generation that could yet emerge, one untouched and untainted, that could yield a better future. Of course, that all depends on if its audience can stand to watch.