Mule train: Maria more slick than gritty

The economy sucks everywhere.

In Colombia they have the overwhelming numbers of poor people, the legitimate businessmen who exploit them, and the people involved in the drug trade.

Maria Full of Grace is like an adult, live-action, non-musical (though with a great soundtrack) version of a Disney animated feature. The opening scenes establish Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a 17-year-old who envisions a life beyond her dead-end small town.

At the flower factory where she de-thorns roses we see men in protective suits and masks spraying pesticide before the unprotected women come in to work. And speaking of a lack of protection, Maria is pregnant by her dull boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero). He's willing to marry her, but she doesn't love him and knows he doesn't love her, so she turns him down.

Things are no better at home, where Maria's paychecks are spent by her grandmother, mother, and single-mother sister. One day Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), the cousin of a guy who's been flirting with her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), offers Maria a job that involves travel and promises more money than she's dreamed of making.

Yes, it involves drugs too. Maria will be one of the young women (and men, but not in this movie) known as "mules" who swallow small packets (about 10 grams each) of heroin and smuggle them into the U.S. The swallowing is the icky part here; we don't have to watch the drugs come out at the other end.

Maria befriends Lucy (Guilied Lopez), a more experienced mule, before learning that Blanca has also been recruited. They and a fourth woman– they travel in groups on the theory that "if one gets caught it's easier for the rest to get through"– fly to New York, where Customs is not unfamiliar with the smuggling procedure.

The arrival at the airport is Maria's first adventure in the United States but not her last. It's New York, for crying out loud, and if she can make it there she can make it anywhere. And if anyone can make it, we'll put our money on Maria.

That's the trouble, if you can call it that, with Maria Full of Grace. It should be an "art film" but has such a strong heroine that it winds up feeling more slick than gritty. Catalina Sandino Moreno, who resembles Ali McGraw in Love Story, is a good actress but looks too movie star perfect at all times to be fully believed as an unsophisticated Colombian village girl. Maria may not be very educated, but she instinctively makes most of the right choices.

Writer-director Joshua Marston makes good choices too, at the risk of being caught on the cusp between art and commerce. If he can attract both mainstream moviegoers who don't mind reading subtitles and art-house aficionados who aren't afraid to be entertained, he can have a hit on his hands. In any case, he shows he's ready to direct a studio picture.

As for his heroine and the actress who plays her, as her friends say when they toast her for quitting her job, "To Maria, because she kicks ass!"