Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Immigrants and sentiment cross the border

Summary: Illegal immigration remains one of the hottest of hot-button issues. Filmmakers can take one of two approaches to the subject, a political and potentially incendiary tack or one that attempts to humanize the subject by appealing to emotion. Director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos opt for the latter strategy in "Under the Same Moon," a boldly melodramatic story of a nine-year-old boy who crosses the border in search of his mother.

It may sound odd to call a movie about illegal immigration a crowd-pleaser, but that's what Riggen and Villalobos have concocted with a sentiment-drenched story that enumerates the ABC's of immigration hardship -- low-paying jobs, fear of deportation, dangerous border crossings, personal sacrifice and prejudice within American society -- while telling a story built around a boy's determination.

Here's the set-up: Every Sunday Rosario (Kate del Castillo) calls her son (Adrian Alonso) from a pay phone in Los Angeles. The boy, who remained in Mexico with his grandmother (Angelina Pelaez) looks forward to these calls, but feels slightly abandoned by the mother he hasn't seen in four years.

From the start, it's clear that young Carlitos is a child of indomitable spirit. So when grandma dies, it's no surprise that he embarks on an adventure that allows the filmmakers to highlight the immigrant plight.

To begin with, nothing goes as planned. Carlitos crosses the border with two economically stressed Mexican American students (Jesse Garcia and America Ferrera). Things quickly go awry, and Carlitos is left on his own, to fend for himself in Texas.

Eventually, Carlitos hooks up with the wandering Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), a migrant worker who at first resists the boy, but gradually takes on the role of mentor and protector. Carlitos --engagingly played by Alonso -- and Enrique give the picture heart and humor with each taking turns at goading the other on.

Those looking for subtlety probably should look elsewhere. "Under the Same Moon" telegraphs most of its moves, and seldom misses an opportunity to play to cinematic expectation. I'm not particularly partial to movies that underline every emotional beat, but "Under the Same Moon" communicates its message with primer-like clarity: Those who cross the border from Mexico in search of better lives for their children deal with many difficulties and seldom find the hoped for payoff. And of the hardships, the worst probably involves a separation from loved ones.

The movie, on the other hand, works hard to give the audience the big payoff it expects -- even at the expense of probability and credibility. Riggen and Villalobos seem intent on tugging at the heartstrings: Hard-core realism can wait.

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