The recent surge in Mexican-made films on both sides of the U.S. border has had mostly positive results, but I suppose we were due to see a downside at some point.
The relentlessly goopy kid-in-jeopardy film Under the Same Moon is that downside, unless you were yearning for a Spanish-language version of last winter’s August Rush. The pity of it is, this movie could have been more than just another clumsy tearjerker if the filmmakers had set their sights a bit higher. The plot takes up an implausibly eventful seven days in the lives of Rosario (Kate del Castillo), an illegal immigrant working several housecleaning and factory jobs in L.A., and her 9-year-old son Carlitos (Adrián Alonso) in Mexico. They haven’t seen each other in four years, but they talk every week on a payphone, and she’s hoping to make enough money to obtain legal status and bring Carlitos over. The plans for their reunion accelerate when Carlitos’ sickly grandmother (Angelina Peláez) dies, leaving him prey for greedy relatives who covet the $300 that Rosario sends back every month. Rather than stay with them, the boy scrapes together the cash he’s been saving and crosses the border illegally, hoping to make his way from El Paso to California. Throughout his journey’s hardships – which aren’t really that hard in this PG-rated film – he gains comfort from gazing up at the moon and knowing that his mother is looking at the same thing.
All that’s missing is Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram singing “Somewhere Out There.” That sentimentalism is typical of the way director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos, both first-time feature filmmakers, mishandle this material. Shamelessly milking the story for all its pathos, they have their onscreen actors cry on cue at every opportunity, which is too bad, because when they’re not shedding pretty tears, Alonso has some real presence and del Castillo glows with a soft luminosity. (Contrast this with her previous performance as a stone-hearted importer of underage sex slaves in last year’s Trade.) There aren’t any mildly surprising plot developments in either the character-driven scenes in Rosario’s half of the film or the more episodic Carlitos storyline, in which his voyage brings him into contact with a dangerously inexperienced coyote (America Ferrera), a gruff but lovable migrant worker (Eugenio Derbez), and the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, who play a song for Carlitos while giving him a ride in their van.
The filmmakers do make a few insightful observations about the obstacles faced by illegals and could have meaningfully addressed the issue of immigration from the viewpoint of the illegals, which doesn’t get a lot of play. Not that we’d want this movie to be something like Crash or Babel, but a few more touches of reality could have added some toughness and allowed the reunion story to earn its tears. Under the Same Moon plays safe, though, and that’s why it feels so synthetic.
Under the Same Moon
Starring Adrián Alonso and Kate del Castillo. Directed by Patricia Riggen. Written by Ligiah Villalobos. Rated PG.