‘Midnight Family’ Film Review: Private Mexican Ambulances Earn a Tough Living in Riveting Doc

Sundance 2019: Luke Lorentzen’s camera rides along with one hard-working family trying to survive in an overburdened system

The opening shot of Luke Lorentzen’s riveting documentary “Midnight Family” is deceptively calm. The camera is filming in the back of an ambulance as it slowly backs into a spot for the night. A young man opens the door and begins cleaning wet blood off of the stretcher. We then hear the paramedic talking to his girlfriend, telling her about the horrors of his shift with all the gory details: a terrible accident, multiple serious injuries, not enough ambulances to transport victims, and finally, a death.

It’s just another day in the life of the Ochoa family in Mexico City. In the country’s capital, there are only 45 government-run ambulances to serve a city of 9 million people. The rest of the city must rely on private ambulances, which are incentivized to race to the scene of an accident first and are on their own to collect payment.

The Ochoas operate out of one of these private ambulances with an all-male crew ranging in age and experience. The dangerous job is not a lucrative business. Many times, their passengers will neither have insurance or enough money to pay for their services, however necessary their intervention may have been.

The ambulance’s main patriarch, Fer, is a stern man teaching his sons the family business. While his son drives to the scene of an accident, Fer takes over the ambulance’s loudspeaker to yell at cars for not moving out of their way. He’s also an understanding man who treats patients kindly — when he’s treating a teenage domestic abuse victim, she asks him for a hug and he obliges, calming her down and talking her through her options.

At 16, Fer’s son Juan is experienced but still has a lot to learn. His younger brother, Josué, usually rides in the back or stays out of the adults’ way by squirreling away in a small compartment in the ambulance. At nine years old, he’s not quite ready yet for the tough job — and it’s tough work that’s only getting more difficult as corrupt police, unregistered ambulances and tougher restrictions make it harder for the Ochoa family to survive.

Filmed in a stylish yet observational style, it’s easy to forget the director and his camera in the middle of these life-or-death moments. Lorentzen, who also shot and edited “Midnight Family,” embraces candid moments outside of their job, including scenes like Josué playing in the back of the ambulance, Juan’s therapeutic phone calls to his girlfriend, and the family’s routine to get ready for work.

In one comical scene, the camera is filming a conversation when an emergency call comes through, and Lorentzen bolts to run around to jump in the back of the ambulance so they can take off to an accident scene; the camera moves wildly until it’s safely in the back of the truck. It’s one of many exhilarating moments that reminds the audience of the job’s unpredictability.

While the movie seems like it’s always on the move, there are a handful of still moments, almost as if to let the audience catch up with the frenetic pace of the Ochoas’ job. Near the beginning of the film, the ambulance is shown idling, waiting for that next emergency call as the rain pours and the slick roads reflect the street lights around them. Another shot near the end of the movie captures the gush of constant traffic on congested highways, visually suggesting that life moves on and death is a part of that daily life.

Lorentzen’s film doesn’t always identify the people working on or with those in the ambulance. What the camera focuses on is their shared experiences of racing other ambulances to the scene, yelling for cars and pedestrians to get out of their way — the nights when money is short, and they’re stuck scraping by on whatever they can afford to eat at a gas station. “Midnight Family” is both a compassionate portrait of a working-class family and a frightening ride through a broken healthcare system that risks the lives of both patients and providers like the Ochoa family.

“Midnight Family” does not shy away from showing the pressures they face from all sides and the constant exhaustion in their line of work, but we also come to understand their sense of loyalty to their patients. There is so much suffering in their profession, more than the Ochoas can take on, but they do what they can to help those in need.