Monday, January 19, 2009

Sundance 2009: Coming to America

[Film Fest] I don't mean to bang yet again on Sundance's knee-jerk liberal biases--OK, yeah, I sort of do – but if there's anything the audiences here might love more than a movie about people trying to lift themselves out of their disadvantaged lives, it's a movie in which the people trying to lift themselves out of their disadvantaged lives are immigrants.

That’s not to issue a blanket dismissal of such plots. Just last year, Sugar did a wonderful job of dealing with an impoverished protagonist’s culture shock. But we’ve also seen a lot of movies in recent years – particularly at Sundance in recent years – about newcomers immersed in the slow boil of our American melting pot. And as individual as some of these stories may be, you start to wonder how many different ways there are to talk about what it’s like to get to – and be in – 21st-century America for the first time.

Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka certainly comes at the subject from a solidly intriguing point of view. Palestinian single mother Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour), fearing for the future of her 15-year-old son Fadi, takes advantage of receiving a long-delayed visa request and moves to Illinois, where her sister and her family live. Many of the expected challenges ensue – Fadi facing bigoted classmates; well-educated Muna winding up underemployed at a fast-food restaurant – while compounding them by setting the story in 2003 during the early days of the Iraq War. Faour delivers a rich performance, somewhat making up for a narrative that races through Fadi’s Americanization from fresh of the boat to getting stoned and wearing hip-hop gear in seemingly a matter of days. It’s understated, and only a little bit familiar.

More familiar – though only partly – is the milieu of Sin Nombre. Writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga follows three primary protagonists over several days: Sayra, a Honduran teenager attempting to get to New Jersey with her estranged birth father; Casper, a young gang member in southern Mexico; and Smiley, Casper’s 11-year-old protégé. After Casper saves Sayra by killing one of his own fellow gang brothers, the two wind up on the run together, leaving Smiley’s story mostly in the dust – and that becomes the movie’s biggest frustration. The hardships of the illegal immigrant journey to America have been covered in many other movies (most recently something like La Misma Luna); far less so the way a pre-adolescent would-be gangsta has to make adult choices far too soon. The gang angle gives Sin Nombre a distinctive point of view, but it’s also the point of view that sometimes gets lost in the river crossings and immigration raids. (Scott Renshaw)

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