Arriving with the warning labels "heartwarming" and "inspiring," "Entre Nos" (2009) all but dares jaded critics to run for cover.
Actress Paola Mendoza makes her feature directorial debut (co-writing and co-directing the film with editor Gloria LaMorte) in a story based on her mother's experiences as an immigrant in America. Mariana (Mendoza) has just moved with her two young children from Bogota, Colombia to New York to join her long-absent husband who immigrated to the States for a better job several years ago. But just after she arrives, her restless hubbie conveniently find an even better job in Miami. She will have to stay behind with the kids once again, but he will send for her as soon as he can. Mariana finds out from a mutual friend that "soon" is "never," but she is determined to keep the family together and decides to follow him to Miami.
The problem, of course, is money. Mariana can't afford the train ticket and with two children in tow, no support system and no access to the privileges of American citizenship, she is forced to scrounge for any work that is available, first trying to sell her trade-marked empanadas, later collecting recyclable cans on the streets. Any money she earns winds up going to the upkeep of daily life. She is, in effect, working in order to work some more and ultimately just to stay alive. Only pluck and her love for her children keeps her going.
The film's sleeve-worn earnestness is both its strength and its primary flaw. Playing a proxy for her mother, Mendoza depicts Mariana as a suffering saint scrambling to avoid martyrdom. The story seldom strays from familiar territory and indulges heavily in predictable plants and payoffs. Can you guess what mysterious reveal awaits us after we see a 20-something woman suddenly get nauseous? "Entre Nos" is also shot with plain vanilla coverage, cutting from masters or two-shots into close-ups on each line of dialogue, and with a camera waiting patiently for characters (almost always Mariana) to walk into frame and hit their dead-center marks.
But "Entre Nos" is a film from the heart, and its sincerity is undeniably charming. Mendoza writes herself a few too many "big" moments, but she's a winning performer who is up to the challenge of carrying a film which features her in virtually every scene. The child actors (Sebastian Villada Lopez and Laura Montana Cortez) are consistently likable, and Mr. Villada Lopez acquits himself well the few times he gets to perform solo.
As undistinguished as the mise-en-scene is overall, the film still captures a few memorable moments. There's a beautiful, sun-limned shot of the kids blissfully soaring ever-higher on a swing set and the sad scene of the little daughter licking the crumbs from a tiny package of potato chips.
Heartwarming and inspiring? Sure, and why not? Mendoza is telling this one for her mom and she's got the right to brag about her if she wants to.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer is reasonably sharp, a little flat looking at times, but overall a solid effort.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles support the dialogue which is in Spanish and English. The subtitles looked to me to be in a smaller font than usual and were sometimes a bit difficult to read but not enough to be a problem.
The film is accompanied by a director's commentary track.
It also includes "Behind the Scenes" footage (14 min.) which is mostly casting calls, a featurette on "How to Make Empanadas" (5 min.) and a PSA on Immigration Reform (2 min.)
The disc also features a documentary short directed by Mendoza, "Still Standing" (8 min.) which is about her grandmother's attempt to recover from Hurricane Katrina in hard-hit Waveland, MS.
"Entre Nos" may play a bit like a TV movie, but it's a deeply personal project for Paola Mendoza that works because of her considerable charisma. Mendoza was best known previously for her role in "Padre Nuestro" which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007. Here's hoping we see her more often.