April 10, 2008

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Under the Same Moon (PG-13)
A nine-year-old Mexican boy crosses the border and comes to the United States in search of his mother in Under the Same Moon, a delightful fairy tale about how family can conquer all.

Carlitos (Adrian Alonso) eagerly awaits his mother’s phone call every Sunday morning. He is in Mexico with his grandmother and she is in Los Angeles, making money to send home and with dreams of one day bringing him over. These calls are getting harder for Rosario (Kate del Castillo) — she’s still struggling to get her green card and hears her son growing angrier about her absence. (After all, he’s already out a dad — a man who lives in Tuscon about whom he knows practically nothing.) And the emotional toll is only part of the struggle — she also lives with the worry that her chronically ill mother won’t be around for long.

“Long” here being a couple of days. One morning, Carlitos wakes up to find his abuelita dead. Before anyone can find him (and ship him to a much disliked uncle who only wants Carlitos for his mother’s remittances), Carlitos decides to head off in search of his mom, packing a small fortune and a few belongings into a backpack. His first stop is a hotel where he looks for Marta (America Ferrera), an American of Mexican descent who had told the coyote for whom Carlitos worked that she would ferry Mexican babies over the border. She agrees to take him over the border in a small compartment in her van — an enterprise she and her brother started to pay for his college. When their van is impounded for overdue parking tickets, Carlitos finds himself having to sneak out of the lot at night, losing the money that was to have served as his bus fare to Los Angeles. He’s rescued from serious trouble by a woman who takes in migrant workers and gets a ride heading west from El Paso, Texas, (where he entered the country), running into problems with the INS along the way. Eventually, he winds up in the company of Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), one of the migrant workers who isn’t at all thrilled about having a kid in tow but feels too guilty about what might happen to Carlitos if he goes it alone. Together, the pair pick up work to make a little money for a bus to Los Angeles, all the while struggling to get there before the following Sunday when, Carlitos realizes, his mother will call, find out about his grandmother and start to worry about his absence.

Meanwhile, in L.A., Rosario is having a particularly bad week even without the knowledge of what’s happened in Mexico. One of the wealthy women for whom she cleans house has decided to fire Rosario and, because Rosario can’t call the police, she has no recourse when the woman refuses to pay her. Desperate to find another job, Rosario toys with the idea of marrying the sweet man who works as the security guard at the wealthy gated community because, even though she barely knows him, he does have legal residency.

It would be very easy to work up a rant about the hardships Carlitos and Rosario face all because Rosario has committed the sin of moving to a country where she works very hard at two jobs for money to send to her family. And, because she is just as illegally dreaming of the day when her son (who works harder in a week than most American nine-year-olds will work at any point during their under-18 lives) can live in the same house as her. It would take no effort at all to build up some righteous anger over the scenes where men who have spent all day picking tomatoes are arrested and manhandled just for, well, picking tomatoes. But no need — the movie cleverly and gracefully makes these points itself without turning into a diatribe. Often times, the politics is in the upbeat music — songs about the frontera and immigration and one particularly smart little ditty about how Superman is an illegal alien with no green card. (One song is even sung on camera by the norteño group Los Tigres del Norte themselves.) So, with the song lyrics melting anger into laughs, you can turn your attention back to the brave Carlitos, who has a charming and genuine personality in the way that Abigail Breslin’s character did in Little Miss Sunshine. Alonso is a child actor with no sense of “Acting.” He is something close to a real kid — one who realistically insists that he’s not little because he’s nine years old, with just the air of wounded pride you get if you accuse anyone who’s entered elementary school of being a baby or “just a little kid.” Likewise, del Castillo gives us exactly the right amount of desperation and frustration without going all telenovela on us.

Enchanting is not normally how you’d describe a movie that has the immigration debate at its heart but from its opening notes to its pitch perfect final shot, Under the Same Moon hits the exact right chords. B+

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements. Directed by Patricia Riggen and written by Ligiah Villalobos, Under the Same Moon (also called La Misma Luna) is an hour and 49 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by The Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight.