Review: “Jeffrey” is a story of hope in an unbeautiful world

Normal 12-year-old boys trade baseball cards, swap Pokémon, or bargain chips for cookies for fun. Joselito de la Cruz trades windshield washing tools out of necessity.

Joselito, who prefers the name Jeffrey because it sounds American, is the enchanting boy from Santo Domingo in Yanillys Perez’s feature documentary “Jeffrey.” To support his family, Jeffrey washes windshields at a stoplight in Santo Domingo. When he isn’t working to pay his mother’s rent, or playing caretaker for his younger siblings, Jeffrey is working to launch his reggaeton career.

Perez does not frame Jeffrey as a boy to be pitied. He instead reminds the audience that no situation is devoid of hope. Walking through an imitation- forest of lighted trees at a local attraction, he says, “The colors give me hope that someday, something will give me joy.”

Perez’s fly-on-the-wall directing highlights the paradox Jeffrey struggles to reconcile: He has the responsibilities of an impoverished adult with the longing to be a joyful, carefree child. Jeffrey is unusually wise for his age, but he still exhibits the temperament of a 12-year-old boy. He picks at his nails when he’s nervous, he cries when he’s frustrated and he wipes his mouth with his shirt.

One brief scene in “Jeffrey” breaks the illusion that the camera is undetectable to its subject. Jeffrey is sitting on the ground with the camera so close to his face, that he is almost forced to look into it. In an expression of frustration, Jeffrey screams. His scream, though, sounds like a theatrical “this is what an adult would do” stunt. In contrast to the rest of the film’s unfiltered emotion, this moment seems staged and inauthentic.

Jeffrey’s life in the Los Minas neighborhood “may not be beautiful,” as he sings in his song “Los Tres Brazos,” but “it does exist.” Perez’s film provides an otherwise inaccessible peak into his unbeautiful world.

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