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First-time director Chris Eska's chronicle of a family of undocumented Mexicans in Texas is gentle and understated. It gives a strong sense at times of the pain and deprivation of exile in El Norte and the ways that exile erodes family relationships and swallows youthful hopes. Unfortunately, despite a penchant for ellipses, the film is repetitious, and overlong. It could have done with a sense of humor. Its lingering poetic moments, the sweet smiles, the Hallmark card exteriors of young lovers at sunset, moreover, sit oddly with the harsh realism of the turning points. Somehow Eska can't seem to find the way to his characters' inner cores, or to a consistent style. The language throughout is a formal, seemingly even rather stilted, Spanish. The musical background is a droning electronic tone, which does nothing to add ethnic flavor--or enliven things.
This is a story of frustrations--of dreams deferred. Lupe (Veronica Loren), a pretty young widow, feels obligated to stay on with her mild-mannered, chubby father-in-law Jaime (Pedro Castaneda), a chicken farm worker in the town of Gonzales, after Jaime's wife Maria (Raquel Gavia) dies. Then she's further tied to him when the factory lets him go and he can't find other work. They leave their rented shack in Gonzales and move temporarily to San Antonio, where they wind up tossed back and forth between Jaime's son Victor (Abel Becerra) and his daughter Alice (Sandra Rios), both married, but living in dramatically different circumstances.
Shame, hardship, and separation from the native culture seem to be working together on the family to break down communications and standards of behavior. Jaime at first hides from Lupe that he is out of work. At Maria's funeral, Victor pretends he's doing a job he's lost. When Lupe and Jaime get to San Antonio, it turns out Victor has even hidden that he has two young children and so, tragically, Maria never got to see her grandkids. Lupe and Jaime soon realize they aren't welcome at Victor's and go to stay with Alice, who's married to a white American and lives in a posh new suburban house. Alice eventually kicks them out when Jaime comes home one night drunk, but she later comes to regret that when it seems Jaime's days may be numbered. Both she and Victor begin to appreciate the preciousness of their remaining moments with their father. This, like so much of the film, is too bluntly telegraphed to the audience, but it is nonetheless the emotional center of the story.
Meanwhile the film's saga has begun: will Lupe marry Luis (Walter Perez)? He's a fresh-faced, sweet young butcher Victor introduces her to. Luis' arrival breathes life onto the screen at last. Finally there is someone who isn't devious or hangdog. Luis and Lupe are obviously a cute couple and drawn to each other. The way Lupe keeps saying no turns her into some kind of pigheaded Jane Austen heroine. But unlike Emma, Elizabeth Bennett, et al., Lupe gives no reasons for turning down her suitor. Lupe's apparent deferral--as long as possible anyway--of the possibility of happiness is something that would have been worth delving into. Of course loyalty to the memory of her late husband is one reason. She's still young and pretty, but, as a seedy friend of Jaime's says, "time goes so fast." In the place of psychological analysis, there are only Lupe's inexplicable no's alternating with her incongruous Hallmark moments of walking in the sunset with Luis.
Eska's storytelling style does nothing to enliven matters. Sometimes his ellipses are more cruel than subtle, as when Maria has a couple of dizzy spells and falters, and in the next shot Jaime is building her a coffin. Jump cuts and moments of realistic intelligence sit poorly with the telegraphing--the winks at the audience from Luis when he finally gets to take Lupe on a motorcycle ride, the saccharine smiles exchanged between Lupe and Jaime. Above all Eska lets Lupe's indecision go on too long and with too little motivation. By tightening up this part of the story line he could have cut the slack from his two-hours-plus running time and livened up the pace.
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