Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

Midnight Family (2020)

The Ochoa family run a private ambulance service in the documentary 'Midnight Family'

There are 9 million people living in Mexico City and only 45 emergency ambulances operated by the government. The densely populated capital city has been overrun by private ambulances competing for business, just like the one run by the Ochoa family in “Midnight Family” from director Luke Lorentzen. Not your typical documentary, think of the film as a nocturnal thrill ride that resembles a Mexican version of Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” as the ambulance crews become the ambulance chasers.

Lorentzen, like Gilroy, utilizes the urban landscape to the point where it becomes a character in the film. Under a veil of darkness illuminated by the blueish glow of the city’s street lamps, the Ochoa family sits in their battered ambulance listening for police codes on the scanner that signify a car accident or an emergency situation where medical attention is required.

Once a call comes in, the group jumps into action led by 17-year old Juan who maneuvers through the streets of Mexico City like Ansel Elgort’s “Baby” behind the wheel during a heist in Atlanta. The family’s patriarch Fer, rides shotgun, bellowing orders via the ambulance loudspeaker, instructing motorists who ignore the sirens and flashing lights to get out of the way. Uncle Manuel sits in the back preparing to treat the patient while the youngest member of the family Josué, who as Greta Thunberg would say “should be in school,” rides along for the thrill. He also cleans the ambulance for a cut of the profits.

To the Mexican police the Ochoas are criminals who are attempting to pull a heist each time they respond to an emergency call. Most of the victims don’t have healthcare and so the family requires cash at the time of service, whether it’s treating someone on the scene or transporting them to the hospital. But the family is providing healthcare that the government is not. Most of the time Mexico’s officially sanctioned ambulances don’t respond (there’s only one for every 200,000 people) and so the Ochoa family, who’s usually on the scene in minutes, is saving lives. The real criminals are the corrupt police officers who extort money from the Ochoa family and other private ambulance services to let them operate in the city without hassle.

“Midnight Family” speaks volumes about Mexico’s catch-22 healthcare system. The people can’t afford insurance, there are not enough government ambulances, the public hospitals are full, so victims are taken to privatized hospitals requiring cash up front. The Ochoa family runs just one of the many private ambulance services in Mexico City which lineup like taxicabs along the streets waiting for the opportunity to respond to a call and make some money.

Lorentzen spent three years making the documentary after a chance meeting with the Ochoas who were parked across the street from where he was living in Mexico City. He began riding along with them and eventually they became comfortable with each other. Most of the footage you see in “Midnight Family” was taken during the final year together which explains the family’s natural disposition as if the cameras aren’t there.

The scenes where the family is responding to an emergency call are thrilling as they race against other ambulance services. Lorentzen approaches each emergency call with caution never letting the film get too graphic but there’s enough blood and footage that should appease those who can’t turn away from an accident.

Whether they are treating a baby who’s not breathing, a woman who has fallen four stories, or a car crash victim, there is an emotional connection to the Ochoa family who are sincere in their efforts to help and you’ll see in the film that there are many times where they don’t get paid.

The ace cinematography and the way the film is shot will make you forget that you are watching a documentary, but what transpires on screen is real. It’s an impressive debut for Lorentzen. “Midnight Family” takes a fascinating look at a broken healthcare system and a close-knit family trying to do help while surviving on the cash of the victims in what comes across as a judgment-free zone. Fascinating.

(3 stars)

Now showing at Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra in Houston

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Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society.  He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate.

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