Review: 'Icebox' Sums Up Human Cost of Turning Away Immigrant Children Seeking Asylum

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At a time when talk about undocumented immigrants seeking amnesty has dominated so much of U.S. politics, HBO is airing a searing new movie on the subject. "Icebox" tells the story of a young boy fleeing gang violence for America. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans believes it's a film every American needs to see right now.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Icebox" has some moments that are tough to watch, especially the first scene, which features a 12-year-old Honduran boy named Oscar Fernandes forcibly tattooed with the name of a gang that dominates his hometown. His attackers tell him to quiet down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ICEBOX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Spanish).

ANTHONY GONZALEZ: (As Oscar Fernandes, screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Spanish).

DEGGANS: Later, when Oscar tries to duck the gang and watch a friend stumble through a poetry assignment at school...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ICEBOX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, reading in Spanish).

DEGGANS: ...The gang breaks into the school, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ICEBOX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, screaming).

DEGGANS: When a gang is so powerful they can attack a school without fear, it's time to escape. So Oscar's mother and father pay to smuggle their son from Honduras into the U.S., starting an odyssey no 12-year-old should have to undertake, especially alone.

You might recognize Oscar's voice. Anthony Gonzalez, who plays him with a mix of fear, good-hearted innocence and weary determination, also voiced the lead character in "Coco," Disney's hit animated film centered on Mexican culture.

Here, Gonzalez's soulful presence humanizes a character we've seen depicted in hundreds of news reports but may not have really seen. Oscar dodges shady Mexican smugglers, only to be captured by the U.S. Border Patrol and thrown into one of America's infamous child detention centers. He begs a visiting journalist and a guard to let him call an uncle living in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ICEBOX")

ANTHONY: (As Oscar Fernandes, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You had a phone call yesterday. Every new arrival is given a phone call.

ANTHONY: (As Oscar Fernandes, speaking Spanish).

GENESIS RODRIGUEZ: (As Perla Rodriguez, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Miss, I told you it's illegal for you to approach these kids for comment. Well, we need to move along.

ANTHONY: (As Oscar Fernandes, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Spanish).

RODRIGUEZ: (As Perla Rodriguez, speaking Spanish).

DEGGANS: Stop yelling now, the guard says to Oscar, and I'll take you to the phone room later. Even in detention, you can earn a favor if you apply the right pressure.

"Icebox" is mostly filmed in Spanish, but before long, you forget you're reading English subtitles. You're left with the frustration and anger that comes from witnessing a punishing story. Kids in detention sit in an actual warehouse, separated into smaller spaces by chain-link fencing. At night, it's cold enough that the children can see their breath, hence the movie's name, "Icebox." Sleeping on thin pallets, huddled together for warmth and using their foil blankets as play toys.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ICEBOX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, laughing).

DEGGANS: Swedish director Daniel Sawka has created a film as authentic and direct as a news report. The movie's climax comes when Oscar navigates a Byzantine asylum process to finally get a court hearing, only to land in front of a judge speaking to him through an interpreter and headphones, who has no idea how to question a traumatized child about his past.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ICEBOX")

ANTHONY: (As Oscar Fernandes, speaking Spanish).

MARCELA SALMON: (As translator) They shot a boy from my school. They left him there, laying in the street. His family couldn't even take him that day.

FORREST FYRE: (As Judge Keller) Oscar, did you participate, in any way, in the death of this boy?

SALMON: (As translator, speaking Spanish).

FYRE: (As Judge Keller) Answer the question.

SALMON: (As translator, speaking Spanish).

FYRE: (As Judge Keller) Put your earphones back on immediately.

DEGGANS: "Icebox" sums up the human cost of turning away immigrant children seeking asylum by focusing on the plight of one hopeful little boy. Yet, its argument for a more humane, fair immigration system couldn't be more comprehensive and effective. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.