A 1990s road trip with a difference chases the elusive nature of justice, and whether an eye for an eye is enough, or what that could even mean.

The screenplay is from cinema great Guillermo Arriaga, whose track record on a similar theme includes the weighty 21 Grams (2003), in which the interlocking stories included a widow consumed by grief (Naomi Watts) after her husband and children died in a hit-run. Arriaga wrote the script for Upon Open Sky then – in a supreme act of enlightened nepotism – turned it over to his children, Mariana and Santiago Arriaga, to direct.

The resulting film – screening as part of the Spanish Film Festival – is an uneven morality tale that works off the unpredictable dynamic between the angry older brother Fernando (Maximo Hollander), the younger Salvador (Theo Goldin) and their new step-sister Paula (Federica Garcia), who lives with them now their mother has remarried. The boys know little about her other than she likes to watch soapie melodramas and make out with her boyfriend.

Fernando has been haunting wrecking yards searching for the car his father drove when he was killed by a truck driver who veered onto the wrong side of the road. Through the car, he tracks the identity of the truckie and sets out on a mission to find him, packing his stepfather’s gun. The vague plan is to shoot him; a life for a life. Fernando is a twitchy adolescent with poor impulse control looking for retribution.

Salvador comes along. He was in the car with his father and carries scars alongside his distress. Then Paula forces the half-brothers she barely knows into taking her, too.

From this set-up, a sometimes-enervating morality tale unfolds under Mexico’s clear, sunny skies as the trio stop off in cheap roadhouses on their way from Mexico City to the northern desert state of Coahuila. They find the man, kidnap him and drive to a grimly isolated spot near the Rio Grande to extract their revenge.

But what is it? Their relationship evolves in unexpected ways as Paula steps up as well. Of the three, the most traumatised is Salvador, which makes him potentially the most dangerous. Surly Fernando’s loss is so keen he tells Paula she was lucky to lose her mother as a baby because at least she cannot remember.

They are trying to fill a hole in their lives with a new act of violence against a truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel. This small, soulful drama carries Arriagi’s signature theme of the folly of trying to measure one life against another.

Upon Open Sky is screening as part of the Spanish Film Festival, which is showing in cinemas nationally this month.

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