E.S.L - English As A Second Language

[10 March 2008]

By Tiffany White

The first two scenes of ESL are spliced together.  One shows a party girl putting Lindsay Lohan to shame as she snorts lines of coke and goes home with smarmy looking men.  The other shows a group of illegal Mexican immigrants taking a long, hard hike across the border of the United States.  The contrast between the two scenes are stark, but was meant as such.  Unfortunately, this sharp comparison is also one of the film’s biggest mistakes.

Latin-American Lola (Danielle Camastra) is a soon-to-be law student who is throwing her life away with her numerous nights of reckless partying.  One night while driving home drunk, she crashes into a car full of Mexican immigrants.  While the other immigrants take off in fear of the police, Bolivar (Kuno Becker) sticks around to make sure Lola is OK.  After they part, their stories continue separately. 

While Lola deals with the strenuous relationship with her mother, Bolivar realizes how hard it is to find a job in the US without knowing a lick of English.  After a judge orders Lola to donate her time to community service, she becomes an assistant ESL teacher for a class teaching English to mostly immigrants.  In class she meets Bolivar, again, and they gradually build a friendship.

Although both characters cross paths several times throughout the film, their stories are still separate entities.  While Lola’s story is mostly geared toward her struggling acceptance, both with herself and her relationship with her mother, Bolivar’s story is geared toward the difficulty of being an immigrant in the US. 

When Bolivar first enters the country, he’s quite naive.  He’s shocked when he finds out how hard it is to find a job, and when he realizes he has to learn English he scoffs at the idea.  From the scenes of Bolivar looking for work by chasing after cars yelling “Cheap!  Cheap!”, to a scene where he calls home to Mexico and lies to his wife about how amazing America is, Bolivar’s story is obviously more compelling, and that’s where the problem lies. 
   
The film treats both characters as equals, but it’s hard to feel empathy for Lola.  A scene where Lola awkwardly tells her parents during dinner that she doesn’t want to be a lawyer is borderline laughable.  Well of course Lola’s parents tell her she must be a lawyer, but then Lola fires back that being a lawyer is not her dream, it’s theirs, then the whole movie suddenly feels like a cheesy daytime drama.  The problem is we’ve heard Lola’s story one too many times before: Intelligent 20-somethings who can’t live up to their parents’ expectations so they throw it all away.  Sound familiar? 

Lola’s character would invoke more sympathy if her co-star wasn’t Bolivar, who seems to draw most of the attention.  In comparison to Bolivar, Lola’s problems seem miniscule.  While Lola spends the majority of her story releasing her frustrations on the dance floor, Bolivar sleeps on park benches and then gets a job as a stripper.  Although he enjoys it at first, it becomes clear the owner of the club is taking advantage of him and cheating him out of money.  All Bolivar can do is keep taking ESL classes, hoping to improve his English – and his chances. 

Sympathy for Bolivar over Lola also has a lot to do with the theme of the film, which is lack of communication.  While Lola’s problem is emotional communication, Bolivar’s is technical.  He can’t communicate with people because he can’t speak English, and if he can’t speak English he can’t get a job, and if he can’t get a job he can’t get money, and if he can’t get money….you get the picture.  It’s the helplessness of his character that puts him above Lola.  Although the two characters work well together, Lola simply can’t stand on her own.

Director Youssef Delara also makes a few missteps most indie filmmakers make, which is over-stylizing and over-editing the movie.  There were certain scenes where the editing was borderline amateurish, particularly in the montages.  It seems most new directors rely heavily on style to make a film stand out and look unique, but rarely does a film actually need it.  In ESL, several scenes look downright cheesy.  Bolivar’s strip scene goes from a shocking case of money desperation, to a Reggaeton music video.

The DVD is quite bare with only trailers for other films as its extra.  It would have been nice to at least hear a few words from the director, but I guess I shouldn’t expect too much from a small distributor.  Flaws aside, the performances are well-acted and the film is strangely charming despite its sometime questionable nature.  Delara’s message of the American dream would probably be more powerful with a better written character than Lola, but at least he got half the film right, and that’s a feat most seasoned filmmakers still can’t achieve.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/esl-english-as-a-second-language/