Before watching the movie:
I didn’t know this movie existed before I watched it, so all I had to go on was that a lot of it is in Spanish, it’s about border crossing for family and Eugenio Derbez is in it. And I seriously can’t come up with more to say about it.
After watching the movie:
Nine year old Carlitos lives with his grandmother in a Mexican town. His mother Rosario moved to Los Angeles four years ago, but Carlitos never understood why, only that she stays away from him and only calls him every Sunday. He doesn’t know about the $300 a month she sends to support him, but the neighbors who are relatives of his completely absent father do, and plan to seize custody of Carlitos as soon as his grandmother is out of the way so they can exploit those payments. Carlitos works as an assistant to Carmen, an agent who connects people with coyotes to cross the border, but refuses to ever send Carlitos across because Rosario would explode if she even knew Carmen let Carlitos work for her in the capacity he does. Meanwhile, Rosario loses one of her two jobs and misses her son so much she’s considering going back home, while a nice man with papers offers marriage as an alternative so she can get things arranged to bring Carlitos to her. The morning that Carlitos’s grandmother dies, he packs his things, takes his life savings, and goes to an inexperienced American couple who came to Carmen trying to get a job as coyotes for babies. They take him to the checkpoint at El Paso, but their van gets flagged for parking tickets and empounded on the American side with him hiding under the seat. When he sneaks out, Carlitos drops his money, leaving him alone in the United States with only a return address from an envelope and a mission to reach his mother by next Sunday so that she doesn’t worry about him.
By nature this movie has to be carried by the child actor Adrian Alonso, and he rises to it. I’m sure the director gets a lot of credit for helping him bring out the performance. Eugenio Derbez only arrives in the story about halfway through, and at first I thought it was strange he was doing a dramatic role as an actor known for comedy (mostly in Mexico but with some success in Hollywood), until I realized that Enrique constantly being irritated by Carlitos’s presence is entirely comic relief. Once Carlitos and Enrique are paired, they’re a comic double act, and make the hardships that Carlitos experiences on his way west more palatable. And the audience can appreciate some levity by this point, as only perhaps ten minutes earlier, Carlitos narrowly escapes getting sold to a pimp by an American drug addict.
Late in the movie, after a significant disappointment, Carlitos needs the message of the movie spelled out for him, and I think American audiences might need it too. I always intellectually understood the hardships of life without papers in the US, but not only does the audience feel them more vividly through Carlitos’s experience, he also has to be reminded that none of this is something people do for their own amusement. This is a hard life that most would give up on quickly if they didn’t have someone they were doing it for. Perhaps Carlitos’s family should have already explained why Rosario went away sooner, but he understands it much more clearly having had a taste of the life himself.
While about half of the movie is in subtitled Spanish, it would be very beneficial viewing for American audiences. We Americans tend to be particularly myopic about the rest of the world thanks to living in a world designed to let us be so. While there is an endless supply of art about the immigration experience, this is an exceptionally palatable way to see the lifestyle up close and understand who crosses and what (and who) they do it for.