[16 June 2008]
In his scattershot Hollywood expose Bambi v. Godzilla, David Mamet spends a chapter dissecting the “affliction drama” as a two-pronged attack on the viewer’s sensibilities: It appeals to both the viewer’s desire to be politically fashionable and his intention to be compassionate.
When the film delivers the goods, the viewer rewards himself for feeling compassion for little more than a contrivance designed to solicit compassion from him in the first place. All in the name of entertainment.
The affliction drama is a trap, then. Should the viewer fail to identify with the conflict presented onscreen and instead focus on the contrived nature of the film, he is a cynic and therefore cannot be saved. Should the viewer identify with the fictional presentation of the conflict as veracity, he goes to political heaven.
In her debut feature, director Patricia Riggen pits her hero against all the familiar signposts of patriarchal authority—law enforcement, white people, and in this case, common sense—in an attempt to solicit compassion she doesn’t have to work for. To use another Mamet metaphor, this is like “demanding free dessert at a restaurant because one’s aunt is dying of cancer.”
The monster, then, is not the Immigration Naturalization Service (INS) but Riggen’s film. Naturally, the monster wins.
This is a compliment as backhanded as they come, but a compliment no less, for whileUnder the Same Moon comes harrowingly close to emotional pornography, it somehow never quite crosses the line. There is a naivety about this film that makes it nearly refreshing, as though it does not realize that by choosing such a sanctimonious narrative to examine the hot-button issue of immigration, it undermines any humanizing efforts it assumes. Under the Same Moon attempts to combat the intense vilification of immigrants legal and illegal in the current political climate with their sanctification. Neither schema leaves much room for honest examinations of humanity in all its flawed glory.
Instead we get Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), an indelibly smart, brave nine-year-old living in a Mexican village with his ailing grandmother (Angelina Paeleza). He has never met his father, and his mother Rosario (the luminous Kate del Castillo) has been hard at work as a cleaning lady in Los Angeles for the last four years. The only communication Carlitos has with his mother is a weekly phone call in which she describes the neighborhood she is calling from and how much she misses him. She promises they will be reunited soon.
His grandmother coughs so often that it’s clear what must happen next; one morning, Carlitos will walk into her bedroom and try to wake her up, only to realize that she was more sick than she let on. With no immediate family to rely upon, the only course available to Carlitos is a treacherous border crossing to find his mother.
The idea that Under the Same Moon should be the story of estranged love – between mother and son—is a good one, perhaps too good, for while it renders the conflict emotionally accessible, approaching the universal, , it relies heavily on a series of contrivances to get there.
The dramatic obstacles that follow run the gamut of believability; the Mexican-American students who smuggle him in their minivan (America Ferrara and Jesse Garcia) are apprehended at the border for unpaid parking tickets, and the vehicle is impounded with Carlitos stuck inside. He gets kidnapped by a junkie, falls in with some drifters looking for work, and has a few run-ins with INS and LAPD.
Throughout, we are acutely aware that Carlitos is not in any real danger because the script makes clear his fate: He will be reunited with Rosario, it is only a matter of time. Thus, the script appears to be going through the motions. It presents the hero’s desires and the obstacles keeping him from fulfilling those desires, but it does so robotically, alerting us to the fact that we are engaging in fiction when it should pull us into the unfolding drama. As Carlitos escapes each trap, we await with only mild curiosity the appearance of the next obstacle.
The film inter-cuts these events with Rosario’s struggles in L.A., and here it more organically presents conflict. With the dream of bringing Carlitos to America rapidly fading, she considers marrying nice guy Paco (Gabriel Porras) to help out with green card privileges. When she cannot go through with the wedding, she decides to go back to Mexico. She has no idea that her son is already halfway across Texas and her mother is dead.
But just when the script is about to trip over itself for good, the actors come blazing to the rescue. Newcomer Adrian Alonso does more than just play cute; he adroitly exposes the inner turmoil of a character who has been forced to grow up too fast, too soon, and in the most intriguing Act II development, he enlists the reluctant help of a disillusioned Mexican worker named Enrique (Eugenio Derbez).
Derbez’s Enrique is the best device the film offers. He is the foil to the script’s ardent sentimentality, rolling his eyes every time Carlitos does or says something precocious, which is fairly often. Like the skeptical viewer, he is immune to the boy’s charms—at first. Carlitos gradually wins him over, and the chemistry between the two actors is so strong that it all but excuses the obligatory nature of Enrique’s character in the first place, namely that of father-figure in lieu of Carlitos’ real father (who bafflingly makes an appearance anyway). The two of them set out to find the neighborhood Rosario calls from with only Carlitos’ imagination as their guide.
Even at this most charming juncture, the film cannot help its more self-aggrandizing tendencies. One shot in particular of Enrique and Carlitos walking up over a hill towards the viewers, the sky limitless and blue behind them, underscores the film’s inflated sense of importance as it veers clumsily into mythopoesis.
Nonetheless, the fated reunion is admirably staged. Sharing the screen for only a few moments at the very end, the look of pure longing that Carlitos and Rosario exchange across the busy intersection that separates them is almost enough to make the journey worthwhile. Almost.
The DVD extras include a documentary on a series of murals erected in the film’s honor and a “making of” featurette in which Adrian Alonso admits to being in love with Kate del Castillo. He is just waiting for the right moment to tell her…