Reporting from the Denver Film Festival.

A luzzu is a traditional Maltese fishing boat—about 12 feet in length, made entirely from wood, and hand-painted bright colors, with two eyes peering forward from the bow.

The luzzu Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) captains belonged to his father and his father’s father. It has an engine, but that’s about as modern as it gets on the luzzu. The rest is ancient and quickly becoming history. Not far where Jesmark fishes, massive Maersk container ships pull into port while commercial fishers have pulled just about everything out of the sea. There’s a trawling company that’s looking for day laborers, but Jesmark balks. Trawlers destroy the seabed.

But Jesmark needs something, or he’s going to drown in debt. His infant son needs medication, and Mom (Michela Farrugia) is busy making ends meet. Worse yet, the luzzu is leaking, and Jesmark can’t afford the repairs.

Luzzu, from writer/director Alex Camilleri, sets up Jesmark’s conflict without hammering the audience over the head. You know off the bat that Jesmark is operating a way of life that is not sustainable in a competitive market, but it isn’t until one of Jesmark’s friends mentions a buyout with the European Union that the severity of the situation comes clear. The money might be enough to turn things around, but it comes at a steep cost.

Jesmark’s only option: The black market. Jesmark’s a hard worker and can accomplish a lot, legal or not, and he falls easily into the rough waters of illegal fish supply. That Camilleri keeps this turn of events from feeling contrived is what makes Luzzu work. The movie is a narrative but feels like a documentary—you know that the filmmakers are desperately capturing a way of life vanishing before their eyes. That they do it with this level of emotional engagement makes Luzzu a success.

Luzzu is playing the Denver Film Festival on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7:15 p.m., Friday, Nov. 12 at 1:45 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 13 at 11:30 p.m.