Some tearjerkers are jerkier than others. "Under the Same Moon" is such an unabashed four-hankie experience that Kleenex should become its official sponsor.
Little nine-year-old Carlitos (Adrian Alonso) lives with his ailing grandmother in a Mexican border town while his illegal immigrant mother Rosario (Kate del Castillo), whom he has not seen in years, works as a housekeeper and nanny in Los Angeles. She sends him $300 each month and every Sunday calls him from a pay phone in East Los Angeles at the same pre-arranged time. Both Carlitos and Rosario live for these calls. The boy, who knows nothing of his errant father, dreams of seeing his mother again and wonders why she had to leave him behind.
Carlitos finds himself suddenly on his own and, spunky kid that he is, decides the time is right to cross illegally over into America and reunite with his mother – even though his only knowledge of her whereabouts is a post office box in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, unaware of her son's journey, Rosario is contemplating a return to Mexico. It's like an O.
Henry story remade as a telenovela.
But director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos are not exactly pikers. Although this is her first directorial feature, Riggen pulls out all the stops as if she'd been directing soap operas for years. And Villalobos has worked as a writer and executive for Disney and NBC, among others. In no sense can "Under the Same Moon" be deemed the work of do-it-yourself types. The "amateurism" of this movie is highly professional. It's slick about being unslick.
Carlito is offered up to us not only as a feisty boy but as something grander and more symbolic. He's the immigrant spirit yearning to break free; he's Everyson reaching out to Everymother. The poor kid is carrying so much metaphorical baggage that you wonder how he'll ever haul himself across the border.
He's also a pure spirit who endows everyone he meets with decency. Ornery guys turn to cream puffs in his presence. When, for example, a hustler named Enrique (Eugenio Derbez) comes into Carlito's orbit, it's only a matter of time before his inner good guy emerges.
The filmmakers are smart enough – or cynical enough – to realize that we don't watch movies like "Under the Same Moon" in order to be surprised. We go to them for a good cry. Does anybody seriously believe that mother and son will not reunite in the end? It's only a question of how, not if.
Alonso is an engaging actor but at times he seems overdirected, as if Riggen was manipulating his every move off camera. And del Castillo, a veteran of telenovelas, has a bland prettiness that the filmmakers too often indulge in looming close-ups. Her scenes in Los Angeles capture little of the atmosphere of a life lived in fear and hiding. (One scene, with a racist white lady who employs her, is made to stand in for a whole host of ills, but it's badly staged and acted.) She is also given a dreamboat Mr. Right (Gabriel Porras) who must be the most understanding male in the movies in many a luna. Male directors are often criticized, and rightly so, for stereotyping women, but here's an interesting reversal. Porras's Paco is right out of a romance novel.
The illegal immigrant issue is so charged right now that "Under the Same Moon" might well be mistaken for a political statement. It's not, at least not explicitly. The question I had watching this movie was not, Will mother and son reunite? It was, Would Lou Dobbs get misty-eyed at it? Grade: B –
• Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements.