It’s always best to be wary of films that hook film-festival audiences—especially if those films are of a sentimental nature—and Sundance favorites are no exception. Maybe it’s the heavy dose of weighty or artsy films at festivals, but something seems to make the audiences particularly susceptible to the gooiest of films—particularly if children are involved—that would barely pass muster on TV. As a result, I approached Patricia Riggen’s Sundance hit Under the Same Moon with a degree of dread that wasn’t wholly unjustified.
It is pretty heavy on the syrup, with a tendency toward melodramatic plot contrivances and a lot of predictability. But at the same time, it’s thoroughly watchable with flashes of inspired filmmaking, and it has a sincerity that, even when wrong headed, cannot be denied. Plus, the level of acting is remarkably high, even when the film is at its most cliché-driven.
The story is pure melodrama (one that Pedro Almodóvar could have taken and made both moving and funny). Carlitos (Adrian Alonso, The Legend of Zorro) is a 9-year-old Mexican boy whose mother, Rosario (Kate del Castillo), is an illegal alien working in far away Los Angeles trying to make a better life for them both. Carlitos has stayed behind in Mexico with his grandmother, which is all well and good till granny dies. Fearful of having to live with relatives he doesn’t like or trust, Carlitos makes his way across the U.S. border, loses his money, is nearly sold to a pedophile, gets taken in by a kind woman, and winds up being grudgingly looked after by sour-tempered fellow illegal alien Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), who helps him make it to L.A. As drama, this is hoary stuff—or to paraphrase the immortal words of Thelma Ritter in All About Eve, “Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at his rear end.”
Parts of the film have about as much subtlety as the worst of Tyler Perry. (No sooner do we meet Granny than she’s coughing away like she’s in the last act of Camille.) But at that, the screenplay by Ligiah Villalobos has its moments, especially when it plays against expectations as to which of the three possible male characters—if any—Rosario might end up with.
What really makes the film work—sometimes despite all odds—are the performances, particularly those of Kate del Castillo, Adrian Alonso and Eugenio Derbez. These three actors imbue their characters with a sense of reality that outshines even such painfully contrived moments as when Enrique and Carlitos “happen” to walk behind Rosario while she’s sitting on a bench—just missing each other by inches (come on, this was tiresome stuff when John Cromwell used it back in 1936 in Banjo on My Knee). Derbez is particularly fine in what could easily have been an impossible role: the cynic whose heart is unwillingly invaded by the little boy.
Of course, what gives the film its sense of weightiness—real or imagined—is the immigration issue that hangs over the proceedings. The film is a strange mix of crude and clever in this regard. It’s clever as concerns putting faces and personalities on the illegals. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it’s impossible not to want it all to work out for these people. But the film errs badly in affording the characters a sense of entitlement—and doesn’t help things in the least by depicting only one sympathetic norteamericano. Politically speaking, Under the Same Moon is too naive to really take seriously, but as human drama, it works fairly well. Head to the theater before Friday, if you’d like to catch it on the big screen. Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements.