Director Patricia Riggen sets out moving you to tears from the very first moment in her Under the Same Moon, an independent film that has become something of a hot button issue for paranoid conservatives with too much time on their hands. Given the relatively slow and limited release this film has had (at its height it’s played on 450 screens and has grossed a little over $10 million), it’s likely that this movie could have come and gone with little notice. Pundits, however, have gone out of their way on slow news days to point out that Riggen’s movie gives a decidedly one-sided view of the illegal immigration debate and that she should be ashamed of herself for not dealing with the greater social complexities of this issue.
So she has and I say, good for her. Moon is, without question, a manipulative piece of cinema; a tearjerker that tells a simple tale of a mother and son separated by a relatively small physical border, and a labyrinthine maze of political red tape and social paranoia. So much has been said about the social and economic cost of illegal immigrants breaching our borders, but very rarely are personal stories and human faces attached to the other side of the issue. Moon remedies this in its own small way, giving voice to the hopes of Mexicans who wish to take the United States up on its implicit promise of being a land of opportunity for all.
Rosario (Kate del Castillo) has immigrated to the States via legal means and is doing her best to scrape by, cleaning houses for the well to do around Los Angeles and making dresses on the side for those who will pay. She desperately wants her son, Carlitos (Adrian Alonso) to join her, but she is having a hard time saving the money needed to bring him across the border legally. Living with his grandma in Mexico, Carlitos is a good boy who stays out of trouble and lives for the weekly phone call her gets from his mother. However, when his grandmother dies, the ten year-old grows impatient and heads out on his own to cross the border. With the help of two well-meaning but clueless siblings (America Ferrera and Paolo Heitz), Carlitos does get to the States but he left to fend on his own, desperate to reach Los Angeles by Sunday (six days time) so that he might surprise his mother before their weekly phone call.
His odyssey resembles a fairy tale coupled with a laundry list of complaints taken for the illegal immigrant experience. At turns, Carlitos is nearly sold to a pimp to be used for illicit purposes, works as a manual laborer, nearly escapes an INS raid, and is forced to live on the streets for more than one evening. And all the while, Alonso’s big-as-saucers-eyes plead for understanding, opportunity and a one-way ticket to his mom. Meanwhile, Rosario is struggling with sudden unemployment, a looming citizenship test and a marriage proposal that she is considering simply so she can gain citizenship and send for Carlitos.
Much of this defies logic but as a political trope, Moon plays like a microcosm of the experience of illegal immigrants. There’s nothing subtle in the Dickensian journey that Carlitos takes or the day-to-day trials that his mother must endure. Riggen is not concerned about flimsy political justifications based on fear here, her concentration is on people who are eager to work hard and make a better life for themselves and their family. While many may dismiss this is a simplification of a complex issue, this clear, humanistic view of this hot-button topic comes off as refreshing and sympathetic. This is due in large part to del Catillo and Alonso who brings sincerity to their roles that belies their manipulative origin. While Riggen cannot be accused of subtlety here, her two leads can, which makes the film compelling despite its lack of logic.
Under the Same Moon falls under the category of “love it or hate it” as those who embrace its heart will be countered by those who will just are readily dismiss it because of its politics. As for me, I was moved by the plight its characters faced and felt I owed them a debt as their desire to succeed here reminded me of what the United States is suppose to be all about. Many people are in need of such a reminder.
Now playing at Boardman’s Art Theatre
Runtime: 1h 49min –– Rated PG-13 –– Drama