‘Trash’
Director:
Stephen Daldry
Stars: Rickson Tevez, Eduardo Luis
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Trash,” like “City of God,” is set in the impoverished and dangerous favelas of Rio, but it’s handled like “Slumdog Millionaire.” That should be all that needs said, but the drama-thriller has bigger problems. It’s a fleet-footed thriller, based on an atypically harrowing YA novel by Englishman Andy Mulligan, that’s been handled by two other Englishmen who, on top of never having should have touched Brazilian ghetto chic, never should have worked with each other either. Screenwriter Richard Curtis is, of course, the man behind Richard Curtis movies — charming rom-coms that sometimes strain for profundity. Meanwhile, Stephen Daldry, he of “The Reader” and “The Hours,” is all strained profundity, and about as light on his feet as “Kids in the Hall”’s Mr. Heavyfoot. It’s not too many cooks but all the wrong cooks, crammed in the wrong kitchen.

RELATED: "The Final Girls" is the "Purple Rose of Cairo" of horror-comedies

The setup is dodgy, but there’s no reason a lighter touch couldn’t have mixed social realism with the tall tale at the center, not the other way around. Our heroes are three young slumdogs (a term invented by “Slumdog Millionaire,” as it were). Raphael (Rickson Tevez) is the shy, sensitive one; Gardo (Eduardo Luis) is the braggart; Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) is also a braggart but treated like the oft-forgotten third wheel. A usual day digging in the local mass garbage dump leads them to a discarded wallet, whose seemingly random contents are actually hastily discarded evidence that may indict an oily pol (Jose Dunmont) and a hissable, corrupt detective played by Wagner Moura, star of “Elite Squad” — a more thoughtful film on Brazil, and that movie was basically fascist.

Mulligan’s book was deemed by some as too adult for young readers, but the film version seizes upon the R-rating. This means a dodgy set piece where sweet, pint-sized Raphael is brutally tortured by the fuzz, who place him, handcuffed and seatbelt-less, in a car and play demolition derby. That this plays out with classical music booming seriously over the nastiness conveniently points to the tonal mismatch at work. It’s an exploitation movie directed like Oscar bait, a movie ashamed of its own base content that in trying to achieve transcendence does things like try to goose the audience by putting kids in harm’s way. 

Its bad taste is also a good way to underline its shallow portrayal of favela life, which seems informed primarily by the movies. Indeed, the only goodies in our lead trio’s life are, of course, white Americans: a pastor (Martin Sheen) and his ally (Rooney Mara), who figure very little in the story and barely disguise that they’re there as insurance for investors looking to lure in international audiences. A simple, optimistic and touching finale — ruined, natch, by several minutes of bombast and Christiane Amanpour — almost justifies the serious tack, but getting the ending right is, of course, too little too late.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge