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At the Movies: Under the Same Moon ***1/2:

A film about illegal immigration lands in Los Angeles at a time when the anti-immigration movement is stronger than ever.  That alone makes Under the Same Moon daring subject matter, at least in this city.  While its magic didn’t quite work on the majority of critics, it certainly works on audiences.  The film is playing to packed houses in limited release and is one of the genuine surprises of the year so far.

Under the Same Moon is about us and them.  It’s about America and Mexico.  It’s about our bizarre, dysfunctional relationship with our neighbors.  Big themes are woven beneath the melodrama and, yes, they’re easy to spot.  But they’re worth bringing to light nonetheless. 

The film, written by Ligiah Villalobos and directed by Patricia Riggen, follows the perilous journey of young Carlitos (the delightful Adrian Alonso) who, upon his grandmother’s death, sets off on a trek to leave Mexico and find his mother in East Los Angeles.  His mother Rosario (Kate del Castillo) is busy working two jobs to send money home to help raise Carlitos. 

It sounds simple enough, even perhaps cliché, but William Goldman once wrote that a good story unfolds the way you want it to but in ways you don’t expect.  Carlitos’ journey from Mexico takes him through the various stumbling blocks of any illegal willing to risk life and limb for the chance of something better across the border.

Carlitos trusts a couple of do-gooder Americans (one of whom is breakout star America Ferrera) who hide him underneath the backseat.  When the car is impounded, Carlitos gets into America but is stuck at an impound lot.  He accidentally loses his money and ends up adrift at a bus depot. 

After a near disaster with a drug addict, the nine-year-old is taken in by a kind woman who helps “illegals.”  After that, Carlitos makes it because of the kindness of strangers.  One after the other, those who come in contact with the boy decide to do the right thing and help him to find his mother. 

Meanwhile, life is not easy on Rosario, who also depends on the kindness of her various employers.  Not being a citizen, she has no rights; no labor laws apply to her and employers can treat her badly without repercussions.  Her options are limited – marry an American, keep working hard, and miss her son growing up.  At some point she decides that, even poor, life has got to be better in Mexico where, at least, she’ll have her son close by. 

As she decides this, Carlitos is getting closer.  His own story becomes richer with the introduction of his reluctant companion, a cantankerous drifter who has no use for a needy kid like Carlitos.  No, this isn’t the world’s most surprising story, maybe it isn’t even that original, maybe you could have written it.  But here’s the thing: that doesn’t make it any less moving, any less satisfying, any less necessary.

Under the Same Moon probably won’t change anyone’s mind, especially those who are convinced the “illegals” are sucking California dry.  It isn’t out to change anyone’s mind, though.  It is just telling a good story from a unique perspective about a population of people who are all too often invisible in this city as they make their way from paycheck to paycheck, house to house, street corner to street corner.  Isn’t it about time we got to know them a little bit better?

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