Tuesday 29 July 2014

Movie Review: Spanglish (2004)

A thoughtful exploration of parenting through the immigrant experience prism, Spanglish is a tender comedy brimming with a frothy human spirit.

The film is presented as an essay by Cristina Moreno, as she applies to enter Princeton University. Cristina names her mother Flor as her hero, and the film is a flashback recounting their story. In Mexico, Flor (Paz Vega) was abandoned as a young mother, and took it upon herself to cross illegally into the US with her daughter Cristina to seek a better future. After six years of confining herself to the Los Angeles Hispanic community, Flor still knows no English but strikes out into the world of the white people to try and make more money to better support Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), now almost a teenager. Flor finds employment as a housekeeper and nanny with the Clasky family.

Deborah Clasky (Téa Leoni) immediately takes a liking to Flor, despite having recently been laid off and still suffering through an emotional crisis. Her husband John (Adam Sandler) is a chef with a growing reputation. They have two children, Bernice (Sarah Steele) and George. Bernice is a bit pudgy, a condition that just adds to Deborah's stress levels and to the strain on John and Deborah's marriage. When the family moves into a beachfront home for the summer, they invite Flor and Cristina to stay with them. Deborah starts showering Cristina with affection, much to Flor's consternation, while John and Flor find plenty of emotions in common, despite the difficulty of communicating across a language barrier.

Written and directed by James L. Brooks with an eye to mixing societal commentary with romance and some humour, Spanglish succeeds in its delicate balancing act. The film unfolds with a gentle rhythm, the three main adult characters orbiting each other in search of emotional fulfilment, seeking happiness as parents and craving, in their own way, success for their children.

Flor, Deborah, and John are each facing major challenges, and they will complicate each other’s lives while simultaneously strengthening their dependencies. Deborah’s nervous breakdown reduces her ability to function as a wife and mother, as she is wrapped up in low self-esteem. She also latches on to Cristina as a more perfect surrogate daughter, seemingly smarter than Bernice and not suffering through the weight issues. Flor depends on Deborah for her livelihood, but quickly learns to resent the influence of her employer on Cristina.

Meanwhile, John is trying to survive his wife’s meltdown and the distraction of his growing professional reputation as a leading chef. The connection between Flor and John, both emotionally abandoned, is warm and genuine, and handled with an unusual sensitivity that allows the flame of love to flicker to life at its own magical pace.

The language barrier and the immigrant divide between Flor and the Claskys is used as a clever device for some pointed humour and social observations. Brooks finds a terrific peak in a scene where John and Flor argue while Cristina provides animated translation services. The degree of mutual dependency is emphasized by the need to tolerate the fragmented communication channels, while Flor’s willingness to learn a new language highlights the commitment of newcomers to their children’s success in the new world.

Adam Sandler plays John with a welcome laid back comfort, convincing as a man trying to keep his household together despite a disintegrating wife. Téa Leoni is all-in as Deborah, finding the fine line where stress and functionality rub against each other. Leoni plays Deborah as an often normal woman, but suffering from worrisome episodes of excessive and impulsive behaviour triggered by her emotionally fragile state.

Paz Vega steals the film as Flor, the heroine of the story and the central focus of Cristina's life. Vega learned her English along with her character on the set of the movie, and conjures up a performance of resolute courage. Cloris Leachman adds a dose of comic relief as Deborah’s mom and a former music pop star, abandoning her drinking when it’s time to become a parent again.

Warm and heartfelt, Spanglish is a treat in any language.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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