In Mexico, Monterrey has a notorious gang problem, often linked to street violence and drugs in a city where cartels pose a national threat, but 17-year-old Ulises and his friends aren’t part of it. Technically, their little group is also a gang — they call themselves “Los Terkos,” dress alike in baggy clothes and sport magnificent hairstyles that turn the heads of total strangers — but these kids have come together out of a common interest not in crime, but for cumbia music.
That’s the central misconception director Fernando Frías de la Parra sets out to challenge via stereotype-defying full-immersion portrait “I’m No Longer Here,” now available on Netflix. The writer-director, best known for his work helming the Spanish-language HBO limited series “Los Espookys,” eschews comedy here, taking a more sober ethnographic approach. Frías’ first draft predates the series by at least five years and was workshopped at the Sundance Lab back before many people were paying attention to the Cholombiano subculture the film depicts (or “Kolombia,” as it’s called here).
Since then, portrait photographers (and a popular Vice video) have brought global attention to the distinctive style of these marginalized young people, who have discovered a sense of freedom and self-expression dancing to manipulated cumbia music — classic tracks that take on a completely different tempo when played at slower RPMs. The Cholombiano dancers have adopted a signature punk look as well, embodied by Ulises, who wears his hair bare in back, bleached on the top and tips, set off by long, slicked-down sideburns, like some kind of exotic anime character.
Striking newcomer Juan Daniel García plays Ulises with limbs lithe and face hardened, a flexible dancer determined to look tough on the intimidating streets (stick through the credits, if Netflix lets you, to see García and the other non-pro actors in and out of character). Early on, we learn that his older brother co-founded a gang that went the other direction and got mixed up with the cartels. “I wish I had someone like you to watch out for me when I was a kid,” says its leader, whose murder will later force Ulises to flee the country — well, “later” in chronological terms, although the scene of Ulises’ departure from Monterrey to Queens, New York, opens the film. It’s telling that virtually the only possession he brings with him is an MP3 player loaded up with every cumbia song he knows. Maybe in the United States, he can dance for money.
Frías presents “I’m No Longer Here” in two parallel time frames, cutting back and forth between the two countries in a way that can be confusing at times. Ulises is an alien of sorts in both, owing to more than just his rebel style. In New York, an insensitive white photographer stops to take his picture, which might seem a cheap shot, except something similar happens in Monterrey, where Ulises the ladies ask for selfies with him as well. His unusual coif invites teasing from some, respect with others. The effect is not unlike a mohawk’s in that it commands attention and conveys Ulises’ outright refusal to assimilate, which becomes an obstacle.
In Queens, Ulises finds lodging among fellow Spanish speakers, but when they gang up on him, he crashes on the roof of a nearby bodega where he’d done some clean-up work. The owner’s daughter, Lin (Xueming Angelina Chen), takes an interest in the enigmatic foreigner, although this subplot — like so many in Frías’ expectation-bending film — doesn’t pan out as one might expect. As in Sundance prize-winner “I Carry You With Me” (the true story of a Mexican gay couple who immigrated to New York), living undocumented in the U.S. has serious downsides, and the film captures them with sympathy rather than sensationalism.
Ulises could apply for asylum in the States, but the story isn’t about the traditional path. So many films suggest that the solution to people’s problems is to head to cities like New York and Los Angeles, whereas “I’m No Longer Here” opens with that step and sees Ulises’ journey through to its likely conclusion. Frías isn’t trying to change policy so much as perceptions. Tragic as the film can be at times, there’s something incredibly charming in the way it depicts the Cholombiano bubble: Picture a bunch of South Central gang-bangers coming together to roller skate, and you’ll get a sense of the oddly old-school aspect of Ulises’ passion. On multiple occasions, he scoffs at hip-hop music, questioning how anyone can dance to it. Ulises makes for an uncommon protagonist, but that’s the point: Faced with pressure to embrace drugs and violence, Ulises resists, finding his own beat to follow instead.