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Running off and joining the circus won’t seem like such a fun idea after watching Circo, Aaron Schock’s documentary that follows the owners and operators of a Mexican big top. The Ponce family lives and breathes its countryside-traveling circus, which is run by the owner’s son, Tino, his wife, Ivonne, and their children. That’s all the young clan does. The adults don’t have outside jobs; the kids don’t go to school. (“Just circus, only circus,” says one of the children) Their education, in Tino’s eyes, is learning to perform and work hard. Once you’re born into the circus, Tino believes, there’s no escape, and who would want a real house and a settled life, anyway?
Perhaps he should check with his spouse. Circo captures not only the ludicrous amount of work and financial hardship that comes with running a circus (regarding their never-ending debt, Tino’s mother remarks, “The load makes the donkey walk”) but also its strain on relationships. Tino’s sister and brother opted out when each fell in love, though they both eventually miss the lifestyle. In contrast is Ivonne, who giddily ran off with Tino when she was 15 but now thinks her kids work too much and that, essentially, the circus life is akin to slavery, with Tino’s father collecting money made off his family’s sweat.
Ivonne and Tino’s marriage is a framework of sorts—Circo, while largely engrossing, isn’t exactly focused—and it’s difficult to watch it crumble on camera. But although Schock mostly keeps things even-keeled, you end up siding with Ivonne. There are some truly appalling moments, such as when a kindergarten-age girl is forced to keep practicing backflips despite sobbing over her hunger and fatigue, and when Tino’s daughter admits she’s pretty much illiterate. When Tino’s brother, Tacho, decides to leave, their parents tell Schock that Tacho’s girlfriend “is like a devil” for stealing him away. (More input from the hard-nosed parents, who don’t care for Ivonne, either, would have made this a more compelling doc.) There are undoubtedly devils here, but they’re not the characters that offer an alternative to the circus; they’re the ones who make it a prison.