For most 11-year-olds, a 12th birthday is something to look forward to. For Chava, a boy growing up in rural El Salvador, it's a date with terror.

In Luis Mandoki's tough and tender "Innocent Voices," it's the 1980s and Chava's country is embroiled in a 12-year civil war. When boys turn 12, they're spirited away and pressed into the government army. If they return alive, they come back as hardened machines, their innocence lost. What makes the ordeal more acute for Chava is his natural empathy for the rebels, one of whom is his beloved uncle.

Chava (Carlos Padilla) has been appointed "man of the house" by his mother, Kella (Leonor Varela), since his father has left for better opportunities in the United States. Chava, Kella and two younger siblings are left to duck bullets that tear nightly through their flimsy shutters and, in the daytime, try to make money in a poverty-stricken, dangerous region.

Mandoki, director of such English-language movies as "Angel Eyes" and "Message in a Bottle," has infused "Innocent Voices" with Hollywood touches: The cast is uniformly attractive, the story relies on coincidence and last-minute rescues, and there's a precious love affair between Chava and a beatific classmate. But this time Mandoki, working in his native language, finds a satisfying blend of sentimentality and hard-core realism. You're so caught up in this story's cruelties and injustices -- he never lets the war become just a backdrop -- you crave sentimentality.

-- Desson Thomson

Chava (Carlos Padilla) must survive civil war in "Innocent Voices."