"The greatest riches a man can have in his life ... mi familia." - José Sanchez
In 1926, a young Mexican farmer (José Sanchez) in search of something more walks the yearlong journey from Michoacan, Mexico to Los Angeles, California. There he meets the love of his life (Maria), settles in the home of a departed relative, and begins raising a family. Written and directed by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas -- the team behind the Oscar-nominated screenplay of the powerful El Norte -- My Family tells the story of this Mexican-American family through three generations of hopes and dreams, triumph and sorrow.
Narrated through the eyes of José (Eduardo López Rojas) and Maria (Jenny Gago) Sanchez's eldest son Pacos (Edward James Olmos), My Family is an audacious effort that attempts to weave numerous themes into one coherent story. It begins with the patriarch's journey from Mexico to California, a trip that takes him nearly a year to complete on foot. When he arrives, he has little but the clothes on his back and the name of a relative who may be able to provide shelter while he looks for work. In that period, there were no strict borders between the two lands, and José finds himself at home with countless others who made a similar journey. The promise of work is found in the more affluent towns across the bridge, and like many others, José crosses that bridge every day to and from his modest job as a gardener. He soon meets Maria, who also works across the bridge as a nanny for an affluent White family, and the two marry and begin having children. Most of this occurs in the first 20 minutes of the film, and it sets the foundation for this family's story.
Through the years, José and Maria have many children, and each has a unique story to tell. Chucho (Esai Morales) is their third child, and before he is born, Maria gets shipped back to central Mexico in the government's overreaction to the job loss of the Depression. Although she is an American citizen, she is of Mexican descent, and that's enough to get caught in their wide-sweeping net. After Chucho's birth, Maria fights her way back to her family, but this separation makes it difficult for Chucho to find his identity between his Mexican heritage and the American way of life he wants to lead. While a loving son and brother, he is a hothead who is ruled by his macho posturing. Jimmy (Jimmy Smits) is their youngest son, and his adoration for his older brother Chucho combined with witnessing a horrible tragedy make him a man who is very angry at the world, particularly the government. He spends many years in prison, but when he gets out, he reluctantly has a family of his own. In addition to Chucho and Jimmy, their daughter Irene marries and moves away, and daughter Toni enters a convent, while their son Memo goes off to college to become a lawyer and Pacos joins the Navy. One of the better scenes in the film comes from Memo, whom everyone considers to be the successful one, but as he prepares to marry into an upper middle class family, his struggles with a bicultural identity are revealed.
The lives off all these characters weave through one another with the home of José and Maria at the center of it all. The primary theme of My Family is as straightforward as its title: family is the foundation. Without family, nothing else matters; and with it, anything can be overcome. It is a theme that is completely universal, and you do not need to have immigrated from Mexico to recognize your own family in the lives of these characters. In many ways, they are the quintessential American family. Where this film finds its greatest success is balancing a story every family can identify with and yet telling a tale that is unique to the Mexican-American experience. It is an impressive accomplishment and one that succeeds in large part to the stellar performances of most of the cast. While Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos were already stars, looking back on this film nearly a decade later, it could be argued that My Family boasts the most impressive Latin American cast to date. Jacob Vargas (Traffic) and Jennifer Lopez (uh ... J-Lo) are very effective as the young José and Maria. Constance Marie (George Lopez) sparkles as the lively Toni, Benito Martinez (The Shield) is wonderful in the role of the young and dutiful Pacos, and Lupe Ontiveros (Real Women Have Curves) is as great as she always is as Irene. For as strong as the supporting cast is, Esai Morales (NYPD Blue) and Jimmy Smits elevate it to an even higher level. They bring so much depth and compassion to their characters, and the two of them carry significant portions of the film on their shoulders. Edward James Olmos's role as Pacos is relatively small, but his narration captures the wisdom and humor of a man who has lived through this story and is now sharing it with the audience. Finally, veterans Eduardo López Rojas and Jenny Gago portray José and Maria in their older years, and they bring a warmth and passion to the family that underscores every scene. It's truly a remarkable assemblage of talent.
Unfortunately, some of this talent is wasted as the writing and direction are not as tight as I had hoped. The characters are wonderfully vivid, and the story of their lives is worthy of exploration; however, the screenplay meanders in a few key areas while glossing over others. In addition, some of the editing choices are not particularly strong, and it sometimes feels closer to a TV movie instead of a feature film. Thankfully, these flaws in the storytelling are often eclipsed by the vibrant set design of the Sanchez home and the neighborhood in which they live. A lot of attention was paid to the details of recreating 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s America through the perspective of a Mexican community, and the film benefits greatly from this realism.
In many ways, I feel the story was hampered by the traditional time constraints of a theatrical release. Two hours just isn't enough time to address some of the issues facing these characters, and I wish there had been more freedom to work with their story. I suspect Nava felt the same way as he teamed up with many of the same actors to create American Family, a longer running television series for PBS that follows many of the same themes as this film. Still, for its flaws, My Family is a unique film that stands strong as one of the few works that genuinely captures what life was and is like for the Mexican-American family.
My Family is presented in anamorphic widescreen with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio tracks, as well as a stereo track. The picture is very uneven and at times looks as though it was dragged through gravel. It appears that very little attempt was made to do anything but the bare minimum with the video presentation, and the beautiful colors and landscapes are often reduced to something dull and unremarkable (as seen in the screencaps). It's a disappointing effort, and this film deserves better.
The audio is also fairly average. Neither the 5.1 nor DTS tracks do a good job balancing the audio. In scenes where two people are talking across a table, the volume levels are sporadic, and you can clearly hear one character while the other is soft and muffled. To their credit, the few action sequences in the film sound great. The roaring rapids of the Mexican river are clear and intimidating, and the reverberations of a fatal gunshot are captured well in the surround mix. However, these few moments are overshadowed by the majority of the scenes where the dialogue balance is all over the map.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
The only noteworthy extra on the disc is a five-minute featurette called "Behind the Scenes of My Family". It provides a little insight into the casting and direction of the film, but it is woefully short and barely worthy of mention.
My Family is a film that should appeal to just about anyone. While focusing on the Mexican-American experience, many of its themes are universal to any American family, particularly one of the millions who are but a couple of generations removed from immigrating relatives. Some of the editing and direction is flawed, but the story is pure, and the acting is top notch. Unfortunately, this film deserves a much better DVD treatment, and given the low quality of the audio/video presentation as well as the relative absence of extras, I am forced to suggest that you Rent It.