First-time director Patricia Riggen isn't afraid to be sentimental, but her film is emotionally explosive in conveying the reality of these lives as lived.
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
This film isn't about the national debate on the divisive issue of illegal immigration. It's really about the international non-debate about the deep emotional bond between a mother and her son.
“Under the Same Moon” (2008) may seem ripped from the headlines, but it works because it's a stirring feature story. The political agenda it references is merely tucked into the nooks and crannies of this powerful dramedy.
It's the heartwarming tale of a nine-year-old boy who crosses the U. S.-Mexico border in search of his mother, whom he misses desperately. And the urgency of that mother-and-child reunion fuels the narrative in a powerful way.
His mom crossed the border illegally four years ago in search of a better life for both of them, hoping to earn much more than she could in Mexico. She leaves him behind to live with his elderly grandmother.
An undocumented worker in Los Angeles, the mother is now employed as a domestic. She longs to return to them, and she calls him once a week from a pay phone, but she supports them by sending money back, thus helping to improve their living conditions.
Questions are begged, but softly: Is this abandonment? Is the boy better off this way? Would he trade belongings for his mother's company?
When the boy's grandmother passes away, he takes off alone to cross the border and find his mom. He's smuggled across the border, hiding under the back seat in a minivan, into El Paso, Texas, from where he sets out for a place called L.A.
Now, if only he had an address.
First-time director Patricia Riggen isn't afraid to be sentimental, but her film is emotionally explosive in conveying the reality of these lives as lived. But she never lets things turn mushy. Her poignant story feels honest and fresh and telling. Consequently, we feel invested in the outcome.
The extraordinary Adrian Alonso as the boy, Kate Del Castillo as his mother, and Eugenio Derbez as an illegal migrant worker and initially reluctant father figure are all engaging and excellent, and America Ferrera turns up in a small but crucial cameo.
Given its subject matter and the strong emotional tug it exerts, this effective and affecting comedy-drama has the potential to be one of those infrequent foreign-language (it's mostly in Spanish with subtitles) movies that has an impact on the mainstream audience.
Complain all you want about the emotional manipulativeness of the heart-rending ”Under the Same Moon” along the way – and you won't be incorrect. But see if the ending doesn't overwhelm you.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.