Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman is best-known for his work in political documentaries, so it may have come as a surprise to many when his newest film was revealed to be about reggaeton superstar J Balvin. But The Boy from Medellín is not a traditional music documentary even though it is about a musician — it’s a perfect depiction of the Latino experience.
The movie follows J Balvin as he prepares for a massive concert in his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, all the while feeling challenged by the political turmoil that divides his country. Balvin’s story is an interesting one, and while the film feels a little busy trying to juggle all of these different elements in his life, it captures the unexpected complexity of his life.
For Latinos, it will be easy to understand Balvin’s struggle. With all of the struggles that Latinos around the world are facing, those who live in privilege begin to question whether or not they are doing enough to support their people. And on top of that, Balvin struggles with trying to be “mainstream” while not abandoning his roots and his culture.
Heineman takes great care to present Balvin as an empathetic subject, and while he definitely isn’t perfect, he’s far from the divo personality that one would expect. Portions of the movie that explore the great lengths that Balvin goes to in order to show his appreciation for his fans offer some genuinely funny and endearing moments.
But first and foremost, this is a film about someone trying to understand how to use their voice in a constructive way. Balvin already knows what he wants to say, and he has the platform to do it — he just isn’t sure how he wants to go about it. It is truly sad to see someone want to help but be stuck in an industry that so desperately wants them to keep their head down.
Heineman builds his movie around Balvin’s homecoming concert, and so the film is really focused on mounting up suspense to this point. And while the stakes aren’t high in a traditional sense, it is clear that these things matter to Balvin, so it is extremely easy to get invested in the story and buy into its emotion.
Of course, the movie is also a ton of fun to watch. Taking a fly-on-the-wall approach before the concert finale, it features plenty of great reggaeton music which provides an excellent accompaniment to the film. It is the personal access that Heineman gets to Balvin’s daily life that makes this movie stand out, though.
The Boy from Medellín is shockingly great, subverting a lot of expectations that people would have of the music documentary. And while it is most likely to connect with Latinos and fans of Balvin’s music, it’s definitely well-made enough to be charming for everyone.
The Boy from Medellín screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.