Background: A few weeks ago I blurbed about a New York Times article on the growing number of films about the immigrant experience. Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) was cited by A.O. Scott as one of the recent attempts to show the current situation facing those on their way to the U.S., in this case from Mexico. Patricia Riggen's feature directorial debut received massive interest (and unprecedented money) at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival well over a year ago, but it presumably took Fox Searchlight this long to figure out the marketing strategy. Written by Ligiah Villalobos, Under the Same Moon stars Mexican actors Kate del Castillo, Eugenio Derbez, and young Adrian Alonso, who had a bit part in 2004's tragically ignored Voces Inocentes. America Ferrera (I still cite Real Women Have Curves over "Ugly Betty") and Jesse Garcia (phenomenal in Quinceañera) are well known to American audiences, but their high billing here is disproportionate to their short screen time. The same could be said for the wildly popular norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, whose members have an awkwardly placed cameo.
Synopsis: Carlitos (Alonso) is a young, angelic schoolboy who cares for his sick grandmother and waits at the village payphone each Sunday morning to receive a call from his mother, Rosario (del Castillo), who's been working in L.A. for the past four years. She's had little success earning legal status or even a steady paycheck, and the family seems stuck in a rut. Carlitos has been anxious to cross the border for years but he's just too young to go alone; even his boss at the local "coyote" vendor won't help him arrange a trip. After the (shockingly undramatic) death of his grandmother, he decides to cross over by any means necessary, even in the underbelly of an old minivan driven by tuition-strapped siblings Marta (Ferrera) and David (Garcia). Stranded and penniless in El Paso, Carlitos has just a few days to make it to L.A. - his mother's going to be calling the payphone on Sunday morning, remember? So begins an incredible (and incredibly predictable) journey for Carlitos, who in about 72 hours experiences a lavandería list of immigrant predicaments: exploitation by drug addicts and dealers, fleeing from the INS, working as a tomato picker, hitchhiking on desert roads, tracking down old relatives, working as a dishwasher, sleeping on a park bench, and finally, running from the police. Quite a few days for a 9 year-old. Enrique (Derbez) is Carlitos' reluctant friend and guardian along the way, but he's mostly around for plot development, such as to encourage a bizarre encounter with Carlitos' dad in Tucson, AZ. Meanwhile in L.A., Rosario is oblivious to Carlitos' journey; she's busy playing hard-to-get with Paco (a literal saint played by Gabriel Porras) and cleaning the circa-1982 furnishings of Satan's mansion. Not the devil himself, but a demon of a woman who is so cartoonishly evil that she's literally referred to as Cruella de Vil. As Sunday morning arrives, we know all too well the troubles of immigrant life, but we also know where both Carlitos and Rosario will be: Under the Same Streetlight (by the payphone).
+ Adrian Alonso, who handled a wide range of emotions quite well and didn't act too cute when it wasn't appropriate or necessary.
+ The last 30 seconds - yes, I have a heart and I gave into the emotion of the moment.
- America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia in their totally wasted parts. Her acting was especially awful - where did that come from?
- The out-of-nowhere encounter with Los Tigres del Norte. I'm not a fan or anything, so maybe I missed some kind of clever insight. I know they write about the immigrant experience, but this was a little bizarre.
- The soulless homeowner - too much of a caricature, and funny when it should have been tragic.
- The writing, and some of the editing. Most of Ligiah Villalobos' writing credits are from the TV show "Go, Diego, Go", and she doesn't appear to have a knack for adult-oriented writing.
Writing - 5
Acting - 7
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 4
Significance - 5
Total: 38/50= 76% = C
Last Word: The story told in Under the Same Moon is urgently important in 2008 and will be for years to come. Too bad the story alone isn't enough; the film suffers significantly from poor writing and stiff direction, and it doesn't seem to know who it's made for. It's a shame, really, because I would love to recommend this to so many people. I still may, but I'll have to hope they won't be rolling their eyes as much as I was. The formulaic plot is annoyingly contrived and the schmaltz is so overpowering that we basically lose any ability to relate to the characters. Honestly, I found myself wondering if this story about a 9 year-old boy was in fact written by a 9 year-old boy. And maybe it's written for 9 year-old boys, in which case it works well as a decent starter film for young cinephiles. Who knows? My point in this criticism is that it's difficult to effectively work Under the Same Moon into any serious discussion about immigration in the U.S. , and that's really unfortunate at a time like this. What may have started out as a great idea has become bloated and clichéd, and even a little manipulative at times. There are certainly moments of genuine drama and comedy (including a dig at immigrant Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), but for the most part, La Misma Luna es la misma historia.