I think of all critics, I am best qualified to judge Under the Same Moon (in Spanish, La Misma Luna, although I would argue that it should be translated as The Same Moon, because the Spanish word for 'under'--bajo or abajo--is not in the title, but I digress). Why am I more qualified? It is because I am of Mexican descent, which to the filmmakers means I'll give it an automatic pass (no pun intended) because all people of Mexican descent will automatically want their fellow Mexicans to come over. Well, not so fast...
Carlitos (Adrian Alonso) is the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema: smart, plucky, working as a gopher for human smuggler Doña Carmen (Carmen Salinas). Ain't that cute? He lives with Grandmama (Angelina Peláez) while his mother Rosario (Kate Del Castillo) is working two jobs cleaning houses in Los Angeles without papers. She sends money every month so that Carlitos (the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema) will have a good life. Rosario dutifully calls from a pay phone every Sunday, with Carlitos (the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema) living for that call. Mom sent him a new pair of shoes for his ninth birthday, and at his request describes the area where she calls him from.
Unfortunately, Grandmama dies the following Tuesday. Now, basically alone, Carlitos (the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema) has no choice but to go from Mexico to Los Angeles so as to avoid a villainous uncle. Since Doña Carmen has promised Rosario never to take him across, Carlitos (the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema: get used to it I will repeat it constantly) gets help from inept Hispanic-American students Martha & David (America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia). Technically, they do get him across, but their van is impounded, leaving Carlitos (the most adorable...OK, OK, I'll stop, but you get the idea) stranded in El Paso. He barely avoids being sold into white slavery thanks to a passerby who happens to lead a Mexican Underground Railroad. Now, it's off to Los Angeles.
Rosario, completely unaware that her mother is dead and her son is wandering the U.S. alone, keeps working, all while avoiding the charms of Paco (Gabriel Porras), who A.) is obviously smitten with her, B.) has a job as a security guard, C.) treats her and her friend with respect, D.) is generally quiet, kind, considerate, and gentle, and D.) is a naturalized citizen, in other words, so unlike every image of Mexicans/Mexican-Americans in film. For reasons we never learn, Rosario doesn't want to even date the gentle citizen Paco, instead devoting all her energies to gaining enough money to get a lawyer to help her become a citizen.
Now, Carlitos (you know who) goes on several adventures: he becomes a migrant worker for a while, but in an evil I.N.S. raid is left behind, with only grumpy misanthropic Enrique (Eugenio Derbez) by his side. Enrique is the only person in human history not to fall for the charms of Carlitos and does everything possible to get rid of him, but either in desperation or because Carlitos is the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema, he sticks with Enrique. In Tucson, Carlitos has a chance to meet his father for the first time, and father Oscar (Ernesto D'Alessio) tries to care, but being a more typical Mexican male (at least when it comes to cinema) he abandons his boy once again. Angry Carlitos wants to go back, but Enrique, now softening his heart, helps him get to Los Angeles. Now, with only the vaguest of directions, they search for this mysterious corner pay phone.
By this time Doña Carmen has finally gotten in touch with Rosario by the greatest of chances. Rosario, having already called off her marriage to Paco, is devastated by the double news of her mother's death and her son's American adventures. She decides the best thing to do is go back to Mexico. At the bus station, she sees a child using the pay phone, which makes her wonder; needless to say, Enrique now has learned to love Carlitos (who wouldn't) and sacrifices himself in a way so as to allow that Mother and Child Reunion.
Under The Same Moon is shamelessly manipulative, tugging at our heartstrings with the adorable Carlitos and the determined Rosario. Who can possibly object to a mother's love and that adorable face? You want them to be together; you'd have to be totally uncaring not to want a mother to be reunited with her child. I have no objection to that. I do object to how the story actually reunites them. You know early on when Rosario is describing the area that this will be extremely important information.
Ligiah Villalobos' script leaves many plot holes as well as being almost sadistically manipulative. Rosario apparently never bothered to ask Carlitos how Grandmama was (has she been coughing like she has tuberculosis recently). By introducing the menacing uncle, we almost demand that he leave Mexico, but I only wondered why Rosario never made any contingency plans for something like her mother's death. I never understood why she didn't leave a phone number for emergencies, or why Carlitos couldn't stay with his godfather (Mexican acting legend Mario Almada) or Doña Carmen. Why think of such things?
The whole idea of the grumpy middle-aged man who ends up caring for the child he's been unwillingly left to care for? That got old with Shirley Temple films, and done much better by the way. The clumsy Mexican-Americans smuggling for the first time? That I wouldn't say is original (most first-timers tend to botch whatever they are trying their hands at) but there is one line that galls me more than any other. Doña Carmen is dismissive of Martha and David, saying in Spanish, "Damn Chicanos, can't even speak their own language".
THE FOLLOWING IS AN EDITORIAL WHICH HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE REVIEW.
Who is this stupid woman to tell me I have to speak Spanish? I am an American, my dear, and my first language is English. That kind of thinking, that I and my children and their children and their children's children, have to speak Spanish as their first language is what will hold the Hispanic community back in perpetuity. We'll never advance as a community with that kind of mindset. I hope my children will speak Spanish; I am a firm believer in taking pride in your ancestry. However, I don't think Spanish is my language and resent any person telling me I must speak it because of my background.
And for the record, I don't call myself 'Chicano' and bristle when addressed as such. Thank you.
THE FOLLOWING WAS AN EDITORIAL WHICH HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE REVIEW. WE NOW RETURN TO THE MOVIE REVIEW.
I'll leave out the part where Carlitos and Enrique manage to find a job quickly in what is suppose to be Tucson (and thus having the cafe have child labor) or in how, despite all the terrible things Carlitos sees in the U.S. (like almost being sold as a child sex slave) he still has a heart in his song. In a sense, it makes sense: all through Under the Same Moon I kept thinking of the song Somewhere Out There from An American Tale. It could have been the film's theme song.
They might have even gotten inspiration from this classic song.
Finally, we get plot contrivance after plot contrivance. What are the odds that Carlitos would lose all his money without noticing, or that the Harriet Tubman of illegal immigration would happen upon the selling of Carlitos, or Doña Carmen would come across a list of phone numbers that Carlitos never thought to take with him, or use, at the most opportune moment. Side note: if she hadn't come across it, Carlitos would have still come to the exact spot he was looking for at the right time; curious, that.
Derbez does a rare dramatic turn (known primarily in Mexico as a comic and in my view, not a particularly funny one having seen his shows), and he's actually good as the grumpy man, and we can forgive the fact that we all know that by his last scene he'll grow to love the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema.
The best performances are from both Alonso and Del Castillo. Alonso has a simply adorable face that makes his yearning for his mother more deep and tender. Del Castillo communicates her love for her child, with the only flaw being as to why Rosario would not want to be with Paco, who obviously is in love with her (as opposed to being in lust), but despite that she as a character isn't allowed to have many if any moments of levity Del Castillo creates a wonderful performance.
All in all, Under The Same Moon isn't as propaganistic as I thought it would be. It is about that love between a mother and child, but it doesn't take away from the manipulative nature of the story. I can roll with it if I go into it knowing that the film is advocating a different immigration policy (and a demand that I speak Spanish all the time to where I, native-born, will have to speak with an accent myself). For this, I take Under The Same Moon to task, and give it a mild reprimand.
I have to judge a film not be whether I agree with it or not, but how it worked. Under The Same Moon worked well, but I don't like being manipulated the way I was with the film. Just because my ancestors are from Mexico doesn't mean I have to support or like Under the Same Moon. If we had more immigrants like Carlitos and Rosario, America might be better off; unfortunately, not everyone that crosses is as precious as the most adorable child in the history of Mexican cinema.