“What are you going to do, call the police?” Hardworking, conscientious, and illegal, Rosario (Kate del Castillo) has no recourse when her employer (Jacqueline Voltaire) decides to “let her go.” Taut-faced and designer-outfitted, the woman has no cause to fire her housekeeper, but so what? She’s unaccountable and besides, she’s a dismal stereotype. “Oh for god’s sake,” she sniffs at Rosario, “you’ll find something else, because you’re young.” No matter that Rosario is struggling to make enough money to bring her nine-year-old son across the border, that she hasn’t seen that son for four years, or that actually finding “something else” will be an ordeal. The white lady — nicknamed “Cruella de Vil” by Rosario’s best friend and fellow domestic — has had a bad day.
Rosario’s determination and resilience ground the moral design of Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna). She keeps in touch with her son Carlos (Adrián Alonso) by taking his call every Sunday morning at the same L.A. payphone. Resolute and wily, Carlos (who is played by a short 13-year-old veteran of TV and movies) is already running errands and keeping accounts for Doña Carmen (Carmen Salinas), the coyote in his small Mexican town. His understanding of the border-crossing business comes in handy when he faces a crisis: his beloved grandmother (Angelina Pelaez), introduced in mid-cough, dies. When a couple of creepy-looking relatives say they want to take him in (in order to get access to the money Rosario sends home each month), plucky Carlos knows what he must do. He weeps a little at his grandmother’s bedside, packs his backpack, and embarks on a journey to Los Angeles.
He’s aided in the first stage by a couple of well-intentioned but predictably inept American students, Marta (America Ferrera) and David (Jesse Garcia). “My brother and I are U.S. citizens,” Marta offers Carmen, “We can take babies across.” The experienced Carmen knows enough to turn away this offer — anticipating the “citizens”‘ ineptitude and resenting their superior tone — but Carlos has no such filter. Confronting their own calamity (need of tuition money), the Americans take Carlos’ payment, then hide him under the back seat of their car, leading to expected troubles at the border (rendered in harrowing subjective images indicating the heat, darkness, and close quarters of Carlos’ hiding place when the car is impounded).
His late-night escape is only the beginning, of course. Carlos soon finds himself facing a series of caricatured obstacles, embodied by a red-headed junkie, a dark-suited pimp, assorted border patrol guards, and, at last, a hitchhiking drifter named Enrique (Eugenio Derbez). Though Enrique does his best to rid himself of his new sidekick, the child is persistent and the movie is stuck in mismatched-duo mode. As they argue and split up, then come back together, Enrique comes to appreciate Carlos’ spirit and worry about his exploitation by less honorable adults.
Each adventure is contrived to bring them together despite Enrique’s best efforts to resist the child’s big-eyed cuteness. Their day labor stint — picking tomatoes — ends with a raid by INS authorities (and conventionally hectic camerawork as the boy scampers and hides), and when a couple of bullies try to steal the boy’s bag, Enrique can’t help but intervene. They share rides, motel rooms, and work at a restaurant (where their antic back-and-forths reach a truly annoying pitch). By the time Carlos resolves to locate his long-gone dad in Tucson, Enrique’s a goner: he not only provides moral support, but stands in as the upright paternal figure when Real Dad inevitably falls short.
While Carlos is making his way steadily mom-ward, Rosario is grappling with her own set of daunting clichés. Aside from the self-involved white lady, Rosario and best friend Alicia (Maya Zapata) worry daily about how to stay in the States. But even as they joke about their lack of options (“We should get a couple of gringos to marry us”), Rosario begins to think seriously about marrying for citizenship. Pursued by a very nice, very handsome security guard and green card owner named Paco (Gabriel Porras), she resists, because he’s not “the one.” For all her practical-minded focus on day-to-day living, Rosario remains a romantic, believing that true love will eventually save her.
In another movie, such faith might seem admirable or ridiculous, a sustaining fiction or damaging delusion. But in Under the Same Moon, it’s just the way the world works. Even as Rosario frets over whether to accept Paco’s offer or return to Mexico, Carlos is walking the streets of L.A. in search of the payphone on the corner she has described to him once a week for four years. At each possibility — there’s a Laundromat, there’s a donut shop, though the details don’t quite line up — his eyes grow wide, then his face falls, but still, he keeps walking, and walking, and walking some more. When he finally spots the climactic traffic light, his exhaustion, at least, feels earned.