Out there on the dusty back roads of rural Mexico, that's where American documentarian Aaron Schock went to find a bona fide old-time circus, with a roaring lion and tigers and tightrope walkers under an actual big top. For seven generations, the Ponce family have been proud circus performers, but the bright and brilliant days are gone, and everyone today is suffering in Mexico's desperate economy. It's still a big deal when the Gran Circo Mexico arrives in a small town. The eager children race into the streets, hoping to be the lucky ones to be given free tickets. And teenage girls gawk at the muscular young men putting up the tent. But who can afford to pay for the show inside?
Little wonder, then, that the Ponce clan, especially the younger generation, are peeling off from the circus one by one, broken down by the constant touring, the living in mini-buses, the erecting and tearing down of the circus every several days. And the poverty: tamales day and night. The only one perhaps making real money is the Ponce grandfather, the owner of the circus, and an intractable patriarch. There's no need for an elephant in the room: his grown children and grandchildren toil under his fist for peanuts.
Circo's protagonist is the patriarch's devoted son, ringmaster Tino Ponce. He struggles between his loyalty to his padre, his adoration of the circus life (he's known no other), and the bitterness of Ivonne, his wife, who wants to flee and perhaps put the children, all illiterate circus performers, into school.
There's a poignant sequence where the five kids in the troupe have a rare day away from the big top. They walk through an inviting forest, they play on swings like normal children, they peer into the abandoned vacation home of a rich person and fantasize that they will own such a place some day. Dream, children, dream . . .
Circo is touching as a personal family story, but extraordinary as a visual document of an eroding world, thanks to Schock's second job as an amazing cinematographer. To his credit, Schock is genuinely admiring of Gran Circo Mexico, which — if not quite as advertised "the most spectacular circus of all time" — certainly gives the crowd its pesos worth of chills, spills, and death-defying thrills.