Feel-good road movie crosses the border into catharsis
"Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)" is the nightmare Lou Dobbs has when he goes to sleep at night. A heart-ripping audience pleaser about a 9-year-old Mexican boy crossing the border to find his illegal immigrant mother in LA, the movie courts shameless sentimentality. If you're a cynic or an anti-immigration hardliner, you'll be throwing things at the screen.
Yet director Patricia Riggen lets the audience rather than the filmmaking do most of the emotional heavy lifting, and her cast plays with dry eyes until the very end, when it knows we're about to cave in too. The result is a genuinely cathartic night at the movies - which is one of the reasons we go to them in the first place. Art it ain't, but popcorn is rarely this skilled or seductive.
Mostly Riggen is lucky to have Adrian Alonso playing the boy, Carlitos Reyes. He's not a little heartthrob but a solid, serious kid - he'll be a truck when he grows up - and he understands that Carlitos is taking on a man's mission with a child's hopeful heart. A child's naivete, too.
The boy hasn't seen his mother, Rosario (Kate del Castillo), since she left to find work in America when he was 4; the two have a standing telephone date every Sunday, during which Carlitos lays on the guilt. He lives with his stoic grandmother (Maria Rojo), but she has a Movie Cough, the kind that means she has roughly three scenes to live. Rather than be taken in by a greedy aunt and uncle, Carlitos lights out for the border.
"Under the Same Moon" cuts back and forth between the boy's road movie and the mother's grave romantic drama. Rosario is thinking about returning to Mexico but, conveniently, there's a handsome and kind - and legal - security guard (Gabriel Porras) offering her the prospect of marriage and a green card. Does it matter that she doesn't love him?
Del Castillo has an aquiline beauty and she almost puts this trite telenovela subplot over (the security guard is such a catch the movie has to make a joke about it). We want to get back to Carlitos, though, because Alonso reacts to each new encounter with a wary idealism that's impossible not to respect.
The tour of America's underbelly that Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos take us on is glossed but convincing. America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty") turns up as a well-meaning second-generation Mexican-American - her character can't even speak Spanish - and there's a quick and inviting side trip with the terrific norteno band Los Tigres del Norte.
"Under the Same Moon" gets down to business, though, when Carlitos is taken in for a time by a clan of illegal farm workers, a makeshift family constantly ducking under the radar of la migra. This is effective melodrama rather than astute political argument, working hard to get us to look past statistics and see the human beings - the men and women desperate to be here, the children they've left behind.
Eventually Carlitos hits the road with one of the workers, Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), who of course hates kids. With his rubbery face and large, suspicious eyes, Derbez is great fun to be around - the enjoyment is in watching him grumble and thaw. "Under the Same Moon" is maddening not because it traffics in the oldest gimmicks in the book but because it's so skilled at making them work.
The Anglo characters are secondary and therefore largely caricatures; fine, let the stereotypes be on the other foot for once, even if that's the easy way out. Riggen knows we're invested in the dramatic arc of mother and child reunion, and she plays us like a pro. The final scenes of "Under the Same Moon" are almost perversely protracted, the actors and filmmakers squeezing every last, ecstatic tear from our aching ducts. For once, you feel like the characters have earned it.