The Paraguayan thriller 7 Boxes has a simple set up, a very modest budget, and is the opposite of what one would say is “flashy.” But what this debut feature from Juan Carlos Manegila and Tana Schembori does have is a ton of inventiveness, a firm grip on a twisty multi-arc narrative, and some decidedly effective low-fi thrills. It’s a pleasant surprise that will be sure to help shake the winter doldrums of bored action flick fans with not much else to rally around.
On a sunny day in Asunción in April of 2005, young Victor (Celso Franco), a lazy teenager who hangs out in a marketplace all day waiting for someone to take advantage of his wheelbarrow, wants to earn some money to buy one of those hip, new camera phones. To do so, a mobile store clerk sets the young man up with her brother Gus (Roberto Cardozo), a middleman working for a crime boss (Paletita) that’s using a butcher shop as a cover. Victor’s task is simple: take seven crates with undisclosed “merchandise” to an address that Gus calls in with no questions asked and earn $100 U.S. dollars cash.
But things quickly aren’t so simple. The courier Gus usually uses, Nelson (Victor Sosa), is pissed that he couldn’t make the run because he’s desperate for cash to pay for his young daughter’s insulin. The police lurk around every corner and they definitely suspect things aren’t right with the butcher shop or Victor’s cargo. One of the boxes gets snatched and has to be tracked down. The whole situation eventually ensnares Victor’s older sister (Nelly Davalos) and Gus’ pregnant girlfriend (Katia Garcia), both of whom are co-workers at a Chinese restaurant. Victor also has to deal with his best friend Liz (Lali Gonzalez), a motormouthed hustler whose greed and inability to take a hint and go away threatens to derail Nelson’s efforts. And that’s all before he actually finds out that the crates he has ended up with were the wrong ones, and that his cargo is “merchandise” that never should have gotten out.
Manegila and Schembori (who have previously worked together on several shorts before this film debuted at TIFF in 2012) get everything right that they need to in order for their film to work. Primarily, they have a great grasp on the fine art of escalation. Twists don’t come out of nowhere, but rather things that are being built towards slowly, but surely, and they don’t have any less of an impact when they arrive. There’s one near miss between Victor and Nelson early on that makes absolutely no logical sense, but the rest of the movie plays a very delicate shell game with its overlapping threads, making sure every action has both meaning and consequence. It’s very well paced despite being as tightly packed and cramped as the inner city bazaar these characters are forced to navigate.
There’s also a refreshing attention to character detail that often goes overlooked in low budget thrillers that might want to play up the grime instead of the heart. It doesn’t take Victor more than 30 minutes to stop being a selfish teen and to start being a pragmatist who just wants to get through the day with his life. Franco does a great job portraying Victor as a real teenager that actually values the feelings and well being of those around them even when he’s trying to make a quick buck. He’s lazy at the outset, but there’s definitely a real emotional intelligence to the character that makes him a very easy protagonist to root for. That goes double for the villainous Sosa, who goes from sympathetic, to misguided, to terrifying, to irredeemable all in a gradual progression. It’s even peppered with side characters that all feel like they have known each other a long time, but none of whom ever see eye to eye on anything. There’s definitely a lived in aesthetic to this story that feels natural instead of forced.
Also, for a film that’s designed to be realistically kinetic in terms of camera movement and handheld shooting style, it looks remarkably fluid for a film made on such a low budget and with admittedly low quality cameras at their disposal. There are a lot of long takes that flow effortlessly in the films more action packed moments instead of shaking like crazy. There isn’t a lot of fast paced editing, either. Both feel like remarkable achievements since it’s obvious that the filmmakers didn’t have a lot of actual space to manoeuvre around in to get their shots. It’s very mannered when put into comparison even with most Hollywood blockbusters.
It all builds to an intense, bloody, and narratively satisfying climax, and even a final stinger about how the film’s true MacGuffin – the camera phone – can change one person’s perception of the world around them. The fact that the film can be this entertaining on a shoestring and still muster an intriguing final message to go out on is splendid. It ends up turning 7 Boxes from just a good low budget thriller into a total package.