The Boy from Medellín | TIFF 2020 Review

by Andrew Parker

A work of vanity and ego that tries and fails mightily to look like it’s about a famous person’s social advocacy, Matthew Heineman’s documentary The Boy from Medellín isn’t anything more than a somewhat well intentioned pat on the back to its subject, reggaeton superstar J Balvin.

The Boy from Medellín follows J Balvin (real name José Álvaro Osorio Balvin) as he’s one week away from the biggest concert of his career: a stadium show in his Colombian hometown. While J Balvin is no stranger to the price of fame and performing in front of tens of thousands of fans, his latest show is threatened by increasing political volatility, with protests against the Colombian president and his government bringing the country to a standstill. J Balvin has a massive platform that celebrity has provided for him, but his adamant stance to stay out of political debates (often hiding behind a massive team of friends, assistants, and managers, led by Scooter Braun) has landed him in hot water with those who think someone of his stature needs to have a publicly voiced opinion.

For a documentary about someone learning the need to be socially responsible, The Boy from Medellín is excessively vain to an almost laughable extent. It’s an annoying chore to watch someone dressed from head to to in designer duds for casual dinners in their palatial mansion opining about how their damned whether or not they make a statement, and it’s increasingly frustrating to see how Balvin never seems to grasp the weight of these protests because he’s so wrapped up in his own fame (despite his constant, annoying protestations of being an average guy). His advocacy when it comes to mental health issues seems genuine (since he has battled with anxiety and depression for years), but it’s hard to take anything else very seriously about a film that feels more like promotional material for die hard fans, and less like something that could provoke viewers to thought and introspection. By the end of this, I don’t think J Balvin has learned much of anything, and I doubt viewers will get much out of it, either. Whatever Heineman and Balvin are trying to actually say with this – other than regurgitating the singer’s trite “hustle hard and follow your dreams” mantras – is a mystery to me.

It’s also disappointing to see Heineman – director of exemplary documentaries like Cartel Land and City of Ghosts – delivering a great looking piece of work that also suspiciously smacks of someone taking the money they’ve been offered and running. There are serious issues in the background of The Boy from Medellín, but the overall substance is so lightweight that it could blow away on a windless day.

The Boy from Medellín screened as part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.

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