It’s almost impossible not to like La Misma Luna, the heartstring-plucking story of Carlitos, a clever little Mexican boy who crosses the border alone to search for his migrant Mami in Los Angeles.
For one, there’s the appealing plot line: a mother and child must separate because their poverty and a deadbeat dad leave them little other choice, yet despite incredible odds against them, their love forces each to seek out the other. (The simple, powerful story garnered first-time director Patricia Riggen the biggest distribution deal ever at Sundance for a Spanish-language movie: $5 million from FOX Searchlight.)
At the same time, La Misma Luna expertly brings to life its backdrop: la frontera and the people who cross it. It’s a long pilgrimage from Carlitos’s friendly Mexican hometown to sprawling, confusing L.A., and along the way, he meets all the archetypal characters typical to a migrant’s journey: the coyote; the Americanized Chicanos; the gruff fellow immigrant who’s grown a turtle shell over his heart to keep his ordeal from breaking him. Yet Riggen avoids stereotyping most of these characters, showing them instead to be complex humans capable of both cowardice and heroic acts.
After decades in which American movies depicted Mexicans mostly in broad cartoon-like brushstrokes, (even Crash couldn’t bring itself to make Mexicans anything more than good-hearted puppets), Riggen’s humanizing treatment is a revelation–similar to seeing Spike Lee’s early movies for the first time and gasping that, wow, here someone finally was showing black characters as people. It’s not an exaggeration to say La Misma Luna marks the first time any filmmaker has depicted Mexican immigrant life so truthfully on screen–and with so much respect.
Part of that realness comes from Riggen’s spot-on details that only a Mexican director could’ve gotten right: The tape Carlitos’ street-kid friend wraps around his busted Nikes to keep them together, the way the pesticides burn tomato-pickers’ eyes, the futbol rivalries, and even the authentic, rousing Tigres del Norte soundtrack. (Los Tigres make an awesome cameo too–make sure you don’t go to the bathroom during the movie, so you don’t miss it!)
Most important of all, Riggen and writer Ligia Villalobos are experts at creating realistic emotions–and the film’s cast turns in stellar performances.
Adrian Alonso is a natural as quick-witted, soft-hearted Carlitos. And Kate del Castillo as the boy’s lonely, work-weary mom Rosario shows us a very true-to-life depiction of a single mother. The character has been forced to strike a devil’s bargain–leave her child behind in Mexico with his abuela, in exchange for dollars that mean the small family’s survival. Though del Castillo plays the mom as a virtuous hero (as well she should), she lets all the frustration of her character’s bind come through, as we see her swallowing tears, casting around desperately for solutions, and eventually losing her cool when she realizes Carlitos has undertaken the dangerous trip to find her.
Equally good acting comes from the surprising Eugenio Derbez. If you watch Mexican TV, you’ll recognize Derbez from La Familia P.Luche and other silly comedies, so it’s initially a shock to see him cast as the father figure who grudgingly guides Carlitos north. (Imagine asking Adam Sandler to do Oscar-quality acting in a serious drama, and you’ll have an idea of how risky a choice Derbez was.) Yet although Derbez had never acted in a non-comedic role before, his performance is winningly subtle as a grouchy migrant worker who goes from viewing Carlitos as an annoying brat, to loving him as a son–and eventually sacrificing everything for the child.
The only weak spot is the film’s gringos: They mostly come off as two-dimensional and heartless. There’s Rosario’s evil boss, a skeletal middle-aged woman obsessed with her faded youth, and oblivious to Rosario’s travails. And there’s La Migra–shown in this movie almost as Stormtrooping neo-Nazi monsters instead of who they often are in real life: regular people who see border patrolling mainly as a decent job with benefits, and not as a crusade.
Only a white junkie who at first helps Carlitos but later betrays him, and Rosario’s other, friendlier bosses prevent this movie from turning gabachos into wooden stereotypes the way Hollywood typically does to Mexicans. Still, considering the movie’s well-fleshed-out heroes, we can forgive the novela-ness of some of the villains.
Yes, La Misma Luna does at times venture into melodrama, yet it avoids being cheesy because it hits so close to home. When I looked around during last fall’s Lincoln Center preview screening, even people I knew to be avant-garde-film-loving cynics had wet cheeks. By the time the movie closes, you’d have to be an ice-hearted Minuteman to not root for a happy ending–and for blockbuster success for Riggen’s stereotype-busting film.