Working with filmmaker James L. Brooks’ Grace Films, Sawka expanded his American Film Institute thesis short (notably shot in 2016) into a feature, but like his young protagonist, the movie covers an inordinate amount of ground in relatively quick fashion.
The 12-year-old Oscar (“Coco’s” Anthony Gonzalez, whose face speaks volumes) has been forced to work for a drug gang, and now must flee for his life. His parents dispatch him on the journey through Mexico to the U.S., warning him not to trust anyone. The goal is to reach his uncle (Omar Leyva), who is living and working outside Phoenix.
Fear of exploitation and betrayal haunts his every step, eventually forcing Oscar to take off on foot across the desert. That portion of the ordeal, however, runs second to what he faces once taken into custody, thrown into what looks like an industrial warehouse, where the children huddle together to try to find some warmth, literally as well as figuratively.
Oscar makes a friend, but he’s also bullied by a bigger kid, and generally frantic about finding a way out — seeking help from a reporter (Genesis Rodriguez) who tours the facility. The children are separated by chain-link fences, in a cavernous space that Oscar accurately describes as “a big building, full of kids.”
Sawka lets the kids be kids, and when Oscar gets a chance to phone home, just hearing him say “Mommy” — or talk wistfully about going to school — is devastating. So, too, is his explanation for why he can’t return home, simply responding, “Bad people.”
Shot almost entirely in Spanish, a movie like “Icebox” will likely end up merely preaching to the already converted; still, it’s such a sobering look at the immigration system that HBO — even with its reputation for championing progressive causes — deserves praise for recognizing its importance.
Like the best drama, “Icebox” is defined by its humanity, putting a face on asylum seekers in a way news coverage only occasionally does. From that perspective it feels like HBO is performing a public service, even if those who would most benefit from seeing the movie will almost surely be inclined to look away from its chilling message.
“Icebox” premieres Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, the network is a unit of WarnerMedia.