Luke Lorentzen's Midnight Family captures a city alive at night. The city is Mexico City as a private ambulance service races through the streets. Police and ambulance lights color the film in red and blue. At times, there is an illusion of this being a fictional film in the vein of Bringing Out the Dead and Nightcrawler. However, this is real life.
As stylistic as the film is, Midnight Family is a powerful documentary about the Ochoa family. In a city of nine million people, the government only operates 45 ambulances. Private ambulances have risen to address the need of the city. The Ochoa family scrambles nightly to make ends meet, driven by a desire to help people.
At the head of the family is Fer, the father, who has some health problems. The film frames him often in close-ups. His face wears years of worry. This leaves his 17-year old son Juan to take the lead more often than not. Juan has so much responsibility but has the advantage of youth to keep him driven and focused. When he is not taking the lead on the family business, he is often acting as a parental figure to his younger brother Josué. Josué is frustrated by their hard existence, arguing about how many cans of tuna they can afford and ditching school.
Midnight Family paints a picture of a family in hard times. Many who benefit from their ambulance services cannot pay. They are in similar situations. The film speaks to a larger picture of poverty in Mexico City while telling a smaller story about the Ochoas. We see them get extorted by the local police, race against rival ambulances and sleep in their ambulance. All of these moments stick with you long after the film ends because they paint such a vivid picture of modern life.
Lorentzen is a documentarian like the Maysles who captures moments of astonishing intimacy. His camera seems omnipresent at times. It focuses on people, faces, lingering enough to allow the viewer to feel their struggle. The film flies by but comes across as contemplative and not frantic. It also never feels like it is trying to force a point or agenda on the viewer. It clearly is critical of the government in Mexico City but it lets the audience come to their own conclusions about the inequality and poor healthcare.
Midnight Family is the first great movie of 2020. The film has such a rich sense of place to it. It feels like a revelation to see a city at night like this. Wisely there is no music, just the sounds of traffic and injured people to accompany this tale of a hard-working family, trying to survive while helping others.