The story of America's immigrant past has been well documented by the motion picture. From the boat trips across the ocean to Ellis Island and the accompanying acclamation, our heritage has made for some memorable film. Yet it seems strange that the current migrant situation, dealing with undocumented workers and border crossing illegals gets short shrift. Part of the problem is politics. No one is eager to foist the problems of an already marginalized population on an uncaring and unforgiving public. The other issue is creative. Few artists have attempted to capture this element of the immigrant experience. While it stereotypes several of the circumstances surrounding a Mexican mother and son's day-to-day struggles, La Misma Luna - in English, Under the Same Moon - does a decent job of showcasing their specific plight.
When his grandmother dies, little Carlitos is determined to be reunited with his mother, Rosario. The only problem is, she's across the border in Los Angeles, working a pair of jobs to earn enough money to bring her son over. Of course, she's an illegal, and is afraid to ruffle feathers less she finds herself deported. While her best friend Alicia wants her to marry a man with a green card (or better yet, an actual citizen), Rosario hopes that she can work things out without lowering her personal standards. Still, a local security guard named Enrique manages to catch her eye. Meanwhile, Carlitos tries to get local 'coyote' Dona Carmen to get him across. Instead, he gets smuggled by a couple of well-meaning but bumbling Americans. Thus begins a journey cross country to find the only family he has left.
Maudlin and melodramatic when it doesn't need to be, but insightful and engaging when it counts, Under the Same Moon represents both the best and worst of the revelatory road trip narrative. Director Patricia Riggen mines this material for as many colorful characters and recognizable circumstances as possible, yet just when she needs to rise above the familiar formulas, the clichés undercut our sympathy. We need to identify with these people, to be considerate of their needs and attentive to their dreams - especially since many of the plot points put unfortunate individuals in horrible predicaments. But since Riggen resorts to obvious emotional tugs, we spend more time rolling our eyes than wiping them.
The biggest foul committed by Under the Same Moon though is asking us to believe that a little boy of incredibly limited means and resources could manage to make it from Texas to California without raising a single suspicion. Instead, screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos provides a series of chary coincidences - dim bulb border patrols, easy to breach impound fencing, paternalistic strangers - that help keep the journey from jerking to a halt. We never completely believe in these manipulations, just as we don't feel the terror when Carlitos is literally sold to a pedophile so a dope fiend can get a fix. It all feels scripted and control by forces outside of reality. While Riggen manages some moments of true authenticity, they are few and far between.
Thankfully, the acting tends to overcome these particular problems, especially when it comes to our main characters. While her problems are practically Herculean, Kate Del Castillo delivers a nicely nuanced turn as Rosario. She seems ridiculously obsessed with ethos - she's pretty enough to be anyone's border bride without lowering herself - but when push comes to shove, there's a fire in her eyes that keeps us interested. Similarly, Adrian Alonso avoids many of the child performer mistakes, delivering an organic, unforced portrait of Carlitos' little boy lost. Though there are times when Riggen gets him mugging for extra pathos, he has a naturalistic quality that keeps things from going too far overboard.
In fact, if one had to balance the effectiveness of the leads with the storyline they're stuck in, Under the Same Moon stands as a draw. It doesn't find the easy gravitas a tale like this could legitimately generate, yet at the same time, we feel compelled to follow things through to the end. Rosario's determination, matched by her son's own spirit, provides enough of a catalyst to carry us beyond the problems and the pigeonholing. For every event that feels lifted directly out of Villalobos' laptop, there's a scene that resonates as powerful and commanding. It all makes Under the Same Moon a difficult film to embrace. It also makes it a hard movie to ignore.
As a result, Riggen simply piles on the predicaments. There's a wistful quality to the backdrops, an attempt to showcase the issues surrounding illegal immigration through out of the way places and underground avenues. Carlitos ends up in several places that look like leftovers from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, illustrating that many a migrant exists far outside the center of society. Had the story centered on these fascinating fringe elements, Under the Same Moon would be amazing. Instead, it asks us to accept a lot without making good on its myriad of promises. On one level, it's great to see the contemporary experience of these misplaced and marginalized people expressed so. Then again, such a compelling story should have been much, much better.