It's only human to feel gripped, enraged, and even moved by the events depicted in Innocent Voices, a true account of one boy's experience in the crossfire of El Salvador's long, bloody civil war. Does that make it a noble endeavor? Maybe so, since it comes with endorsements from Amnesty International and Mexico, which officially submitted it for Academy Award consideration. But does that make it a great film? Definitely not, though it may take the space of a few hours (or even a few days) to get enough emotional distance to acknowledge all its flaws and manipulations. Taking a break from slick Hollywood productions like When A Man Loves A Woman and Message In A Bottle, director Luis Mandoki whips out the handheld cameras and shoots the nightly skirmishes with all the herky-jerky energy he can muster. Yet Mandoki hasn't freed himself from the industry enough to legitimize the revolutionary clichés and 11th-hour uplift that sap the urgent realism on display.
The most egregious of these clichés is the single mother played by Leonor Varela, a stern but loving—and, oh by the way, beautiful—woman whose steadfast devotion to her home and her children makes her a candidate for sainthood. (For extra nobility points, keep an eye on her prized sewing machine.) As government soldiers, aided by U.S. money and military expertise, continue their campaign against fierce pockets of guerrilla resistance, Varela tries to protect her three kids from a battle that is literally hitting home. Her chief concern is keeping her 11-year-old son Carlos Padilla out of the military: With his 12th birthday approaching, Padilla will reach the minimum age for mandatory consignment, and the village has already yielded many child-warriors to an evil cause. The scrappy Padilla has a good instinct for wriggling out of trouble, but his growing political awareness makes him anxious to join the revolutionary cause.
Depicting children in peril may be the most direct route to audience engagement, but that power should be wielded responsibly, or viewers will feel kicked around. Nothing is more horrible than the millions of children trapped in war zones across the world, but that doesn't give Mandoki license to dangle these characters over the alligator's mouth. The sight of Varela's three kids huddling under a mattress as bullets riddle their tin-shack dwelling night after night has a powerful effect that eventually curdles on repetition. It doesn't help that Innocent Voices seems populated by holdovers from an Italian neo-realist movie—the earth mother, the priest-turned-default-leader, the loveable village idiot—or that Mandoki goes looking for every silver lining he can find. Though screenwriter Oscar Orlando Torres based the story on his own experiences, the film's realism has the texture of cardboard.