City of Men (Sundance, 9 p.m. ET), a spin-off of Fernando Meirelles' 2002 film City of God, which likewise offers a ride through the slums of Rio de Janeiro, is terrifically unstable. In the opening episode, this attitude first manifests itself in highly agitated camerawork. We're tracking a pair of schoolboys, and watching them climb and hop around their hillside shantytown trying to dodge drug gangs sometimes makes you want to head to the bathroom cabinet in search of Dramamine. The series induces a riveting dizziness that's as dislocating and immediate as an anxiety dream.
Elsewhere in tonight's show, City of Men indulges in animated segments, surveillance-camera riffs, slideshow poetry, and PlayStation-inspired tomfoolery, not to mention an odd and perfect mash-up of the story of the Battle of Trafalgar and the low-down on a Rio turf war. It smoothly toggles between working as a crime melodrama and a coming-of-age tale, as a harrowing piece of social commentary and a gentle bit of farce. It eludes genre categorization, but if one of the nihilistic children it depicts were to put his gun to my head, I'd say it was a situation comedy—one in which the situation is that life is both cheap and beautiful.
Cocky and charismatic Acerola (Douglas Silva) and his best friend Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), who's a bit more introspective and melancholy, are nice guys in their early teens. Their regular supervision, such as it exists, is the responsibility of their grandmothers; their mothers seem to work as live-in maids, and their fathers naturally aren't in the picture. Acerola also has an older sister who, in the second episode, starts dating the neighborhood's reigning gang leader. (One of the funny/frightening things about the series is that gang supremacy is always in flux. In one episode, a big bandit gets sent to jail or to hell; in the next, without a second's exposition, some dude you've never seen before is calling the shots.) Acerola's subsequent abuse of the power-by-association he then enjoys—taunting his peers and all that—is of a piece with the bullying seen on every playground in the world. The extra point of anguish is that here when a kid's shoes get taken, laced together, and tossed out of reach, he's likely to be walking around barefoot for a while.
The show's subject is power, and an endless stream of conflicts helps to generate its dislocating energy. Beyond the rival gangs and the cops and robbers, a score of tensions simmer: The slum kids hate the "playboys"—middle-class kids—while the playboys fear the slum kids, and none of them can have the sneakers they want. Relations in the shantytown are so rancorous that it generally falls to the drug lords to deal with such niceties of civic life as mail delivery. A reference to Bosnia or the West Bank is never far off. In this context, the friendship between Acerola and Laranjinha seems like a life raft, and their occasional rifts seem all the more poignant. For all its shifts in perspective and tone, one constant wonder of City of Men is how fragile it makes childhood look.