Dir/scr: Celso R. Garcia. Mexico. 2015. 95 mins.

The Thin Yellow Line

The slow-burn bonding of a band of hard-up misfits who have been assigned the task of painting the centre line on a 220km-long stretch of rural Mexican road makes for an old-fashioned bittersweet buddy trip in Celso Garcia’s debut feature. Moments of melancholic truth, drama and comedy are coaxed out of the contrast between ordinary people and a big landscape, and working-class male emotional reticence drives a plot that dips lightly into a series of slowly revealed backstories.

There’s a real satisfaction in the reliable solidity of Garcia’s film, which backs up its nostalgic, Mexican Western glow of nostalgia for simpler times with a firm commitment to the dignity of men

After its Montreal premiere and Rome official selection slot, this small, heartwarming number could paint a thin line beyond its Mexican homeland, aided perhaps by Guillermo del Toro’s involvement as one of three producers. However, the predictability of the story and gentle dramatic pacing will probably confine The Thin Yellow Line to arthouse runs in Spanish-speaking territories, plus perhaps a minor small-screen afterlife.

A pewter water jug and a hummed song in the opening scene, set in a wrecker’s yard, neatly establish the film’s credentials as a low-key contemporary Western. Ageing protagonist Toño, lent a quiet strength by Damian Alcazar’s magnetic performance, is a private man of few words who pretty much sleeps in his straw Stetson. When he’s laid off from his job as custodian of the scrapyard – to be replaced by a guard dog – he drives off in his battered pickup truck and begins a job search that takes him into the dusty, desertified heart of the state of San Luis Potosi. A fortuitous meeting with a civil engineer he knew years before reveals what’s gnawing at Toño’s soul: his failure to prevent a fatal accident when he was foreman of a road gang.

But the kindly engineer offers the ravaged old-timer a chance to confront his demons, as the leader of a team charged with painting a yellow median line on a remote desert road. Those who caught David Gordon Green’s enjoyable 2013 dramedy Prince Avalanche will find the premise familiar, but that four-hander was a more self-consciously quirky outing with echoes of Waiting for Godot. If Garcia is channelling anyone, it’s Ken Loach in one of his more benign moods. The ragged bunch of workers who turn up for the job might have featured in a Mexican remake of Riff-Raff: there’s the chubby joker, Atayde (Palacios), a former circus worker; the heavy, slow one, truck driver Gabriele (Cosio); there’s Mario (Parra), a work-shy chancer who has done time; and there’s stroppy Pablo (Hollander), a difficult teenager on the run from family problems

Even before we realise that Toño has his own wayward son issues, the potential for father-figure bonding is obvious, like much in a film that uses campfire stories and the metaphor of a life-saving line in the road to tell a tale of lonely men thawing into camaraderie that we’ve seen so often before. But there’s a real satisfaction in the reliable solidity of Garcia’s film, which backs up its nostalgic, Mexican Western glow of nostalgia for simpler times with a firm commitment to the dignity of men who have been cast aside by families, personal failures or the economic downturn.

Shot with the delicate precision of a nature documentary, the film plays engagingly on its title and thematic guide by picking out splashes of yellow in gorse, bulldozers and sunsets, while Dan Zlotnik’s brass-dominated soundtrack marches at the slow pace of the hand-operated road-painting machine, keeping sentiment at arm’s length. Not everything works: a romantic interlude in a remote hacienda never rises above the level of cliché, and the dramatic finale is a little too hurried to deliver the emotional closure the script is chasing. But it’s easy to forgive these mis-hits in such a likeable elegy for a time when real jobs existed, and there were lines in the middle of the road against the chaos.

Production company: Springall Pictures

International sales: Latido, pbotran@latidofilms.com

Producers: Bertha Navarro, Alejandro Springall, Guillermo del Toro

Cinematography: Emiliano Villanueva

Editor: Jorge Garcia

Production designer: Ariel Margolis

Music: Dan Zlotnik

Main cast: Damián Alcázar, Joaquín Cosío, Silverio Palacios, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Américo Hollander, Fernando Becerril, Tara Parra, Sara Juárez, Enoc Leaño, Fermín Martínez