I'm No Longer Here (4 stars)

I'm No Longer Here

Impressive Mexican drama which offers an alternative take on gang culture

It's extremely unusual to see gangs depicted as a force for anything good, but I'm No Longer Here paints an admirably complex picture, highlighting the powerful sense of belonging and the opportunities for expression and cultural exploration that can come with forging tribal ties. It's a film that takes its protagonist from the vibrant, volatile Mexican city of Monterrey to the equally hectic, though dauntingly unfamiliar streets of New York.

Fernando Frias's second feature (following 2012's Rezeta) follows the wildly styled Ulises (Juan Daniel García), a 17-year-old music enthusiast whose devotion to a breed of Colombian dance music known as cumbia has become a way of life for him and his fellow gang members, a ragtag group of mostly younger kids. The collective call themselves the Terkos (from a word meaning stubborn, or resistant to change); although they associate with older, more violent gangs, their routine is innocuous, as they fix each other's hair in eye-catching arrangements and hang out on rooftops listening to tunes and practicing their moves. Unable to remain innocent forever, when he becomes embroiled in a turf war, Ulises has to flee.

The film cuts back and forth between Ulises' friendships and status in Mexico – where he appears puffed up like a peacock, an impression enhanced by his birdlike quiff, and is frequently depicted in group shots – and the emptiness and alienation of his NY life. Although he is somewhat forcefully taken under the wing of Asian-American teen Lin (sparky work from Angelina Chen), in America he's largely an oddity, existing on the peripheries, unable to connect and communicate.

Like the recent, rather brilliant, Chilean effort Ema, I'm No Longer Here features a lead character who most eloquently expresses themselves through a specific style of dance (there, reggaeton) and highlights the transportive, lose-yourself and come-together power of music. The gang's rituals are stunningly captured by cinematographer Damián García, who drinks in the harmless hedonism at a respectful, awestruck remove, in a film that emphasises both how wonderful it is to be part of something and how brave it is to stand apart.

Available to watch on Netflix from Wed 27 May.