There are no parades in 11:55. US Marine Nelson Sanchez isn’t given the key to the city or free tickets to a football game. Even his welcome party is interrupted by the news that the dangers he had tried to get away from by enlisting have been waiting for his arrival. This film challenges the narrative of the heroic return by questioning our understandings of who goes to war, why they go and what support they have when they get back.
Nelson’s story is inspired by the life of the film’s lead actor and co-writer, Victor Almanzar. Nelson is a Dominican-American soldier that just wants to come home and start a family with his girlfriend. Much to the disappointment of his sister and niece, his criminal past wastes no time forcing its way back into Nelson’s life. Co-writers and co-directors Ari Issler and Ben Snyder tell Nelson’s story in a way that looks deeply at the ways in which young men can be pushed towards violence, both abroad and at home.
It is immediately striking that Nelson’s hometown is never mentioned by name. Stuck somewhere between New York and Boston, the setting is one of many post-industrial Northeast towns where a lack of jobs has led some to resort to crime. In the post-screening Q&A, Issler explained how important it was for them to connect with Newburgh, NY, the city where the film is set. They spent months traveling there from New York City and reaching out to the residents. Anyone who approached the set was granted a role in the production. By working so well with the neighborhoods in which they filmed, 11:55 becomes a story not just of the characters, but also of the city around them.
Issler, who also casted the film, pointed out that the majority of the actors were personal friends, with roots in the hip-hop theater scene. The cast has an impressive amount of recognizable names and faces, including Almanzar (Empire), Elizabeth Rodríguez (Orange is the New Black), David Zayas (Dexter) and Mike Carlsen (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), along with cameos by John Leguizamo and Julia Stiles. Rodríguez in particular gives a power performance as Nelson’s sister, caught in between standing up for her brother and protecting her daughter. Nelson’s niece (Smarlin Hernández) and girlfriend (Shirley Rumierk) also shine. That a film centered on masculine violence features so many strong performances by women was no accident; Issler mentioned that 11:55 was influenced by many classic westerns, but sought to combat the sexism and racism often found in that genre.
11:55 is a powerful film that breaks down narratives of war and patriotism. As Nelson continues to grapple with his past, it becomes more and more clear that there will be no easy way out. The heartbreaking realities and the genuine acting in the film make it an important piece of art that highlights what it means to risk one’s life for country or family.