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Director's touch in 'Innocent Voices' just feels wrong

''Innocent Voices" is not a happy time at the movies. It bears the distinction of bringing to the screen a dark nugget of history. During the El Salvadorian government's civil war with guerrillas that began in 1980 and lasted a dozen years, government forces resorted to stealing boys around the age of 12 (though no one in the movie asks to see a birth certificate) and conscripted them for military duty.

''Innocent Voices," directed by Luis Mandoki from Oscar Torres's autobiographical screenplay, is centered on Chava (Carlos Padilla). He lives in a slum with his mother, sister, and little brother. Chava is cute and plucky, but he's also 11, and the movie describes the time we spend with him as his last innocent year.

Chava's father left at the start of the war, and the family barely gets by on his mother's work as a seamstress. So he takes a job calling out the stops for a jolly, if vulgar bus driver (Jesus Ochoa). The beleaguered priest (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) appears to be the final authority figure left in town, and Chava's school day is twice interrupted by soldiers, once when they're looking for recruits and again when they start a gun battle with some guerrillas perched on the schoolhouse roof.

This all seems slightly less harrowing than it should be. Mandoki has difficultly juggling village life with the government's unsparing destruction of it. The scenes of military conflict are charged and grim, but when there are no soldiers descending or bullets flying, the movie is thin to the point of transparency: It wants to play a symphony on our heartstrings. Hence the swelling music, gratuitous slow-motion shots, and minor characters introduced to make us gasp when they fail to turn up later on. Neither Mandoki nor Torres succeeds at the melodrama their movie's aiming for.

Because Chava is often our viewfinder for events, he also has to do things just so we can see them. When the school is shot up, rather than stay on the floor, he runs to the door in time to see his mother (Leonor Varela) dodging bullets. He races out and across the street, where he embraces her in flagrant disregard of the violence around them. That feels foolish, though I'm sure the filmmakers imagined this moment to be heroic.

''Innocent Voices" is one of those movies whose heart is in the right place, but its treatment just feels wrong. Much of that seems due to Mandoki, who was born in Mexico City and has spent most of his career in Hollywood. His breakthrough was 1987's ''Gaby: A True Story," which was affecting in all the ways this new movie feels labored. His most familiar films are problem romances (''White Castle," ''When a Man Loves a Woman," ''Angel Eyes") and he's tried thrillers, too, like 2002's ''Trapped."

Working in Spanish on Mexican locations, he's brought his years in Hollywood to bear on ''Innocent Voices." And it could have done without that. The movie doesn't need more fake rain, slow-motion sequences, or operatic crying jags. It needs more outrage.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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