Years ago, my friend and I were looking at the entries for the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and almost all of them were stories about immigrant single mothers struggling to make it in the United States. On one hand, that may be as clear an illustration as one can hope for that this is a plight that has affected and is important to an incredible number of people, but on the other, it's a hint about what well-worn territory these films are covering. To say that I went in with skepticism is a bit of an understatement, but, despite a few nitpicks, Entre Nos is a rewarding balance of triumph and despair that endeavors to illustrate both the seemingly insurmountable struggle it can be when one is left with nothing, but also the ways in which America is still the land of opportunity.
Co-writer and co-director Paola Mendoza plays Mariana, a young woman who seems to have a good life. Mariana, her husband Antonio (Andres Munar), and their two children, Gabriel and Andrea (Sebastian Villada and Laura Montana) have just moved to the United States and have settled into a small apartment when Antonio bails, leaving them behind for a job in Florida. When he leaves, he claims his plan is to move them all to Florida, but shortly thereafter, the phone call comes through: he's leaving them behind for good. What follows is a painful struggle for Mariana as she tries to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, while all of the problems in the world start piling up at her feet.
It's tricky having to say this, since it's probably an entirely unfair judgment call for me to make, but -- entirely accepting that I've never struggled for anything, much less to survive -- movies like Entre Nos can easily lay it on too thick. It's easy to understand that all of the bills and the terrible day labor and under-the-table less-than-minimum wages all coalesce into a nightmare situation that ends with evictions and sleeping on park benches, and that can certainly be the story of the writer/director in question. Still, forgive me if watching a good, honest family suffer for two hours isn't always my idea of a compelling filmgoing experience. It's in this area that Entre Nos has the most balance. Even when Mariana is at her lowest, her children are often there to pick her up and support her in surprising and affecting ways, which helps to color in some of the movie's more questionable moments. Gabriel's arc contains a few moments that wander dangerously close to tired, uninteresting territory that would have him blaming and resenting his mother for his father leaving, but for the most part he steps up and tries to pull his mom through the tough moments, which is the kind of reprieve you rarely, if ever see in these kinds of films.
All three of the lead performances are stellar and well-rounded. Mariana is exhausted but never quite broken, clinging to the joy that her children bring her even when things have taken a drastic turn for the worst. Gabriel is observant and surprisingly wise, studying his mother's mood for ways he can contribute and ease the weight on her shoulders. Finally, Andrea is innocent and charming, with her childlike exuberance intact despite all of the hardships she and her family endure. Mendoza and her co-director/co-writer/editor Gloria La Morte have enough confidence in their young stars to give them moments all to themselves, such as scenes when they leave the apartment and crash someone's pool, and moments when they bond with each other, and the results are impressive.
As illustrated in the DVD extras, Mendoza, who wrote the film about her own mother, is living her dream, and it's refreshing to see a film that doesn't want to paint the Mariana character as some sort of saint, or build up a David and Goliath myth where she valiantly slips through a system designed to oppress her. It's just a story about struggle. Good things can happen during bad times, and people are resilient. They can bounce back. In a sense, this is the kind of awareness that makes Entre Nos more inspiring than all of those other single mother stories we saw in the Sundance docket: although those other films may mean well, only Entre Nos feels like it genuinely believes people can overcome adversity, rather than just hanging on and weathering the storm.
Entre Nos comes with an attractively-designed cover that's well organized on all sides and makes good use of spacing. It's an understandable but still slightly disappointing concession that they've Photoshopped the two kids onto the cover, but otherwise, the whole artwork is refreshingly unaugmented by digital airbrushing and whatnot. There is no insert.
The Video, and Audio
IndiePix's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of Entre Nos comes extremely close to succumbing to video issues like posterization, mosquito noise, and jagged edges, but holds back. As far as SD-DVD transfers go, this is actually a significant plus in comparison to some of the DVDs I've watched recently, which usually had a serious issue with one of those problems. It's not crystal-clear, and nobody's eyes will pop out upon seeing it, but it ranks as a solid effort all around.
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 has fair use of the surrouds (namely, the distant noise of the big city, and the all-too-close, hollow drone of crappy apartment complexes). Dialogue is clean and clear, and the music is well rendered. Again, nothing special, but a totally solid offering that ranks above some of the surprisingly lackluster presentations I've been seeing and hearing lately. The only quibble is that the subtitles are burned into the picture, but they're a good size and smoothly rendered.
Paola Mendoza and Gloria La Morte contribute an audio commentary to the disc, talking about the origins of the story, how they started working together, and the journey of getting the movie made. The pair are prepared with plenty of topics to cover and don't leave any significant gaps in the conversation; well worth a listen if you enjoyed the movie.
Video extras kick off with "Behind the Scenes" (14:30), a candid making-of featurette that feels more like a home movie than an EPK. It's mostly focused on the casting of the kids, which may or may not be embarrassing for all the excited children that didn't make it in. Even more useful is "How to Make Empanadas" (4:58), which, if you watch the movie before eating breakfast like I did, will be extremely high on your list of things you want to know after it's over. A passionate PSA on Immigration Reform (1:41) with Mendoza follows.
The last video extra is Still Standing (7:41), a short film also directed by Mendoza, in which she goes down to New Orleans to help her grandmother in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It's lightly heartbreaking and a much-appreciated inclusion on the disc.
The film's original theatrical trailer has also been included.
I reviewed six or seven films last weekend and I was exhausted, too exhausted to throw in Entre Nos. It figures that this is probably the best of the films I could've put in, and the best disc as well, with solid A/V and a few interesting extras. Entre Nos is affecting and well-made; given that it is a tribute, Paola Mendoza and Gloria La Morte should be proud to have made it, and Mendoza's mother should be honored to see it. Highly recommended.
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