In his first English-language feature, British Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts turns a coolly exasperated gaze on the business of national borders and their defense. Centering on a so-called green-card soldier and touching on the recently rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, "Soy Nero" couldn't be timelier. Yet unlike many issue-oriented movies, the artfully crafted film isn't designed to stir up outrage or sympathy through emotional engagement. At its strongest it's an unpredictable ride with a winningly sharp absurdist slant; at its weakest, it leans too hard on pointed symbolism.
Johnny Ortiz stars as 17-year-old Nero Maldonado, a self-described "Dream kid" hopeful. Deported to Mexico after growing up in Los Angeles, he's determined to achieve U.S. citizenship by serving in the military. After crossing back into California from Tijuana, he encounters an unhinged vet (Michael Harney) and reconnects briefly with his older brother (Ian Casselberry), a desperate pretender.
With a jolt, the movie finds Nero on border patrol in the middle of the Iraqi desert. He listens to two fellow Army privates (Aml Ameen and an exceptionally affecting Darrell Britt-Gibson) argue East Coast versus West Coast hip-hop before things take a catastrophic turn.
Amid deadpan observations that range from the heavy-handed to the pitch-perfect, Pitts and co-writer Razvan Radulescu ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") give Nero little chance to truly reveal himself. But as an emblem, he reveals hostile terrain all around.
Rating: R, for language throughout, some war violence and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Cinemark Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, Los Angeles; Century La Quinta and XD, La Quinta