Feisty, independent, pregnant 17 year-old Maria (Moreno) is tempted to become a drug mule, smuggling heroin from Colombia to New York for $5,000 to change her life. What she doesn't foresee, though, is a terrifying journey from which there's no going back.
The winner of some big festival gongs (including joint Best Actress with Charlize Theron at Berlin for Moreno), this first feature from another promising product of New York University's film programme is not for anyone with a sensitive gag reflex.
Joshua Marston provides a harrowing depiction of drug- muling for dummies. The raw, revolting, dangerous details of such an undertaking are graphic, from Maria, with retching difficulty, swallowing 62 balls of condom-coated heroin to their yukky recovery.
Initially, it's that old, sad story: the poor girl lured by a charming guy into a criminal nightmare. Needless to say, the simple plan goes awry almost from the moment Maria, her tagalong best friend Blanca (Vega) and her experienced 'tutor' Lucy (Lopez) take off, triggering a violent, gory crisis and a decidedly desperate series of events in its aftermath.
But what Maria's full of is chutzpah, her youthful folly compensated for by her jungle-cat-like instincts for self-preservation. As a result, Marston ends up encouraging us not to judge Maria, but celebrate her as a canny, fearless spirit taking control of her life - which does somewhat reduce the story to being all about her courage, with no objective reflection on morality.
Maria's heroic stature is questionable, but Marston neatly orchestrates a nerve-wracking spiral of events.