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In Tatiana Huezo’s evocative coming-of-age drama “Prayers for the Stolen,” a mountain town in Mexico under the thumb of the cartels is where girls have to reconcile the regular vicissitudes of growing up with the particular violence that hovers over them. Before a single image is shown, we hear the short, anguished breath of what sounds like a child in distress, but is actually both a grade-school-age girl and her mom, digging a hole as fast as their hands can work the earth.
The hole is for 9-year-old Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) to hide in when cartel men in their SUVs barrel up the winding roads to kidnap the town’s girls, even from the homes of families who work thefor them. The crude hideout could mean the difference between living and vanishing. But it’s no coincidence that one of the first shots Huezo gives us — a tight overhead view of Ana lying in the ground she just helped displace — looks less like a girl saving herself and more like someone being buried alive.
“Prayers,” Mexico’s submission to the Oscars for international feature film, is not always in so starkly threatening a mode. Its heart, in fact, is depicting Ana’s childhood in all its wonder, resilience and recognizable ache. She has a tight, affirming bond with her same-age friends Paula and Maria, and a turbulent relationship with her mother Rita (a suitably intense Mayra Batalla), whose focus on protecting Ana has taken a psychic toll.
It’s not lost on Ana that bad things happen, but the violence can also seem just abstract enough — when a local girl and her family disappear, Ana and her friends meet in the abandoned house to play, their imaginative camaraderie a form of spiritual hope for the girl’s return. That kind of haunted innocence is what Huezo is after, the movie’s particular setting of isolation and menace ringing cinematographer Dariela Ludlow’s edgily handheld frame like a barbed wire.
Salvadoran-born, Mexico-raisedestablished herself as a poetically urgent director about war-torn Latin America with the documentaries “El lugar más pequeño” (“The Tiniest Place”) and the trafficking-themed “Tempestad.” Though “Prayers” is her first dramatic feature, which she adapted from researched novel, it carries the hallmarks of Huezo’s nonfiction sensibility — an artful marrying of atmosphere and perspective — while at the same time imbuing a written narrative with authentic touches, from the use of nonprofessional actors (all the children have wonderfully expressive faces), to details that speak to the reality of situations like Ana’s.
The result is a film made of loosely connected scenes, the best ones floating between observation and storytelling, not unlike a dream. Families gather at night on the hillside’s highest points to get pockets of cellphone reception to talk to the loved ones who left. The mothers agree to meet with their kids’ concerned teacher about the latest kidnapping but stay tight-lipped because he’s an outsider. Poppy-killing poison is sprayed from military planes during harvest, while the local strip-mining industry covers workers in dust — when it’s not fear, something is always coating these villagers that can’t be easily shaken off.
In the most heartbreaking ritual tied to the worries coursing through the community’s mothers, the girls’ hair is chopped off as a meager ward against male desire. Even beauty is perceived as a threat. When “Prayers for the Stolen” jumps ahead five years, Huezo presents us with a trio of short-cropped, heavy-eyed adolescents (Marya Membreño taking over memorably as Ana) for whom impending adulthood is a complicated turning point, one that isn’t necessarily marked by choices. Friendship is still paramount, but survival is the weight that colors every interaction, giving an unsteady heartbeat to this dark, meaningful depiction of feeling locked inside an already hidden world.
‘Prayers for the Stolen’
In Spanish with English subtitles
Rated: R, for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 17, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; also available on Netflix