By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Rooting for illegal Mexican émigré Rosario (Kate del Castillo) and the 9-year-old son who launches on a desperate journey to join her in L.A., we realize that “Under the Same Moon” places us at the heart of a moral conundrum. Little Adrian Alonso as Carlitos puts a face on the immigration debate. Suddenly it’s not so controversial.
While hardcore reactionaries might need visits by a ghost or two more, we agree something must be done. What that is, we are not sure. Certainly we can’t blame Rosario for wanting a better life. Oh that a sequel could tell us how to please folks on both sides of the heated argument.
In the meantime, writer Ligiah Villalobos’s dramatic bit of muckraking, strongly directed by Patricia Riggen, serves as an eye-opening dialogue starter. In Spanish with English subtitles, a thread of sappiness intersperses. It’d be a bit overdone if we were dealing with widgets. But these are people. The emotion is integrally important.
The scenario is conveyed in a nutshell as Rosario rises well before the sun. A deejay jocularly wakes his kindred spirits, day laborer and maid alike, with gags about Gringo. The camera pans the room, pausing at photos of Carlitos. Boldfaced, underlined, the hopes we have for our children cannot be quantified, let alone denied.
This look at a subculture on the run fascinates, and humbles. You thought you knew something about our country’s longest running border war. Through the struggle personified by Rosario and Carlitos, we learn the various processes by which Mexicans illegally make their way here. Rosario crossed over five years ago, but still no Carlitos.
Of course, as attends any illegitimacy, opportunists and parasites abound. Rosario is on her third lawyer. She’s hoping to become legal and bring Carlitos to the U.S. But on this film’s chilly, expository morning, waiting for the bus on a pre-dawn bench with party girl pal Alicia (Maya Zapata), she despairs.
Maybe it’s not going to happen. Maybe she should just go back. ‘Nonsense,’ says the best friend. ‘You’re pretty. Stop being so dreamy. Marry and put an end to the business.’ Which brings them to the front gate of an estate and Rosario’s first job of two. It’s also where chief admirer Paco (Gabriel Porras), now legit, is a security guard.
There’s nothing like an age-old quandary heaped upon a contemporary dilemma to confound matters. Sure, it would be easy enough for Rosario to succumb to Paco’s perennial offer. Making it even more difficult, he’s a prince of a man. But there’s a word for that. And by now, we like the gal. She’s got it all, except for a green card.
Rosario, nicely played by Kate del Castillo, pleases our romantic sense by contending she would only marry for love. She won’t take the easy way. That is, if left with a choice. We’ve long forgiven her for breaking the law. In fact, we whisper ‘No, no” when she despondently mulls returning home.
But when news comes from Mexico that her mom died and Carlitos has taken it on the lam for the U.S., Rosario’s plans come asunder. Homing in on the plights of its two principals, the film’s tension level reaches seat-edged proportions. Along the fringes and into the underground with renegades many years his senior, Carlitos goes pillar to post.
A little boy version of “Black Beauty,” his travail takes him to all manner of adventure, from safe house, to desolation, to the greedy mitts of artful dodgers. This includes teaming up in an odd couple arrangement with Enrique, a curmudgeonly fellow fugitive superbly etched by Eugenio Derbez. The interplay is entertaining.
If we are enamored of Rosario, that goes in spades for Adrian Alonso’s Carlitos, a muffin of a moppet who wows us with ingenuity, charm and, most of all, his sense of fair play. He is a delightful little symbol of what America has long contended it stands for, Plymouth Rock to the present. His harrowing tale makes an eloquently dire argument.
It’s never for sure that the kid will make it. Adding to our concerns, Mrs. Mackenzie, a jaded fancypants hyperbolically portrayed by Jacqueline Voltaire, has arbitrarily decided she no longer needs Rosario’s help around the manse. Less money and the fear that Carlitos has gone missing put our valiant lady in a tizzy.
The plot careens toward the climax like a runaway train. The screen quick-splices between predicaments. Stepping up the palpitations whilst raising Riggen’s stock as a director, a surprise twist throws us off balance.
On the way home, unafraid that we’ll be caught and sent back somewhere bad, we ponder the perplexingly diverse worlds that exist “Under the Same Moon.”
“Under the Same Moon,” rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Patricia Riggen and stars Adrian Alonso, Kate del Castillo and Eugenio Derbez. Running time: 106 minutes