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Maya is a quick-witted young woman who comes over the Mexican border without papers and makes her way to the LA home of her older sister Rosa. Rosa gets Maya a job as a janitor: a non-union janitorial service has the contract, the foul-mouthed supervisor can fire workers on a whim, and the service-workers' union has assigned organizer Sam Shapiro to bring its "justice for janitors" campaign to the building. Sam finds Maya a willing listener, she's also attracted to him. Rosa resists, she has an ailing husband to consider. The workers try for public support; management intimidates workers to divide and conquer. Rosa and Maya as well as workers and management may be set to collide. Written by
In this movie, there are no purloined designer clothes to masquerade in, and Prince Charming doesn't come complete with a political career and a three-piece suit--he's a scruffy charmer in a baggy t-shirt with little more to offer than a megaphone and a cause.
This is a film made by a director who has to be spiritual kin to Michael Moore, but his subject matter is quite different. Here we see real immigrants (both legal and illegal) being used rather cynically by companies whose business plan includes hiring the most downtrodden and fearful and hand-to-mouth in our country, paying them the lowest possible wages, giving them absolutely no benefits whatsoever, and thereby winning contracts to provide custodial and other services over companies that pay a fair and living wage, plus benefits, to primarily unionized employees who are American citizens. You know this really happens. It does. The best remedy for the situation is certainly a matter for debate, but no matter what your political slant or position on labor unions and illegal immigrants, you will most definitely find food for thought herein.
OTOH, if you are also one of the drooling legions of newbie Adrien Brody fangirls, you will find even more food for thought. Brody is painfully cute in this movie-a piquant mixuture of earnest, funny, sincere, sweet, and fiery, topped off with a kinghell case of `bedhead'.
The three central players are Pilar Padilla, as idealistic illegal immigrant Maya, her overburdened sister Rosa, played by Elipidia Carillo, and Brody as Sam Shapiro, an organizer and activist for the cause. No fairy tale, this movie, though a few of the cast are reasonably good-looking. The cast, many of whom really are janitors and custodians, are as real as it gets. You can see a lifetime of hard labor and long hours in their faces, and the slump to their shoulders.
I really grew to like these struggling janitors and maids. None of them were "types"--they were all real people and their conflicts and concerns were illuminated very well, despite limited screen time being available to each. By treating these characters with respect and making them fully-fleshed out, it made the passion of the organizers for this particular cause more understandable, and not just as sometimes seems the case in some portrayals, a matter of someone who is bored or spoiled or has some sort of guilt-complex trying to find their identity and using do-gooderism as a means to that end. Through coming out from the shadows, and joining the great and messy American experience of organized dissent, you could practically see some of these characters changing into `Americans' before your eyes, no matter what their official papers might say. Thinking like Americans, standing up for their rights, making their voices heard. That's how it's supposed to work-isn't it? Isn't it?
If there are caricatures in this movie, then those would be some of the building administrators, but their screen time is so limited, and they are usually so surprised and besieged by Sam Shapiro's stunts and protests that their lack of articulate or sympathetic response seems realistic enough to me. But the one thing that stands out is more than anything else is the absolutely natural acting style. Nobody really seems to be "acting" in this movie. It's as if there was a very unobtrusive documentary maker following these folks around. The movie is, however, well-paced between scenes which are rousing or charming, and those which are raw and painful.
Although this movie is not a love story or romance, per se, Adrien's character does get some action in it. In fact, in one amusing scene, he is literally hauled into a janitor's closet by an enterprising female (smart girl!!) and snogged silly. One can but applaud that sort of enterprise and initiative on the part of a recent arrival to this great country of ours. That's the kind of can-do immigrant spirit that made this country great, and if I were there, I would be sure to tell her how much I admired that quality in her, when I visited her in the hospital to apologize for having accidentally whacked her out of the way with a long-handled mop.
But it can't all be funny and cute, and indeed, in this same section of the movie is a scene of such raw emotion, harsh language, honesty, and truth, between the two Mexican sisters that I cannot say I have ever seen anything like it. Even Ebert said in his review that it's the kind of scene that would win an Oscar if the Academy ever saw movies like this, which of course, they don't.
The ending is both feel-good triumphant, and bittersweet. I think that such an ending was very much in keeping with the tone and overall realism of this movie--yes, some things changed for the better, but for people like these, not everyone gets that happy ending and lives happily ever after. At least, not right away.
There's real passion here, on the part of everyone involved, and it feels genuine, not manipulative. It's a pleasure to see a movie with good quality production values and excellent acting which was made for a reason, not just to make money.
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