A girl and an old man drinking, respectively milk and a beer, at a bar counter. A young boy peering out of the back of a flatbed truck while his sister holds him up so he won’t fall. A pair of boys flailing around a rickety house chasing chickens. Paper Boats is full of such funny memorable moments that to list them is to begin getting at its charm. Directed by Yago Muñoz, the film has a well-worn kind of plot with a timely twist: grumpy abuelo Jorge (Pedro Damián), who lives a solitary life as a fisherman in Mexico, has to learn to take care of his three New York City-raised grandkids when his daughter Alma (Alexandra Melkman) faces the prospect of deportation. Set against the current “Families Belong Together” backdrop, as its tagline notes, this unassuming bilingual indie film is as much about the national border Alma crosses (and Jorge helps others cross) as the emotional walls we set up within ourselves.
When Jorge first gets the emotional call from a harried Alma, that brings him up to speed on her immigration plight and what it possibly means for her kids (two young boys and a girl), he’s all huffs and grunts. Laconic almost to a fault and clearly comfortable in his self-imposed isolation, he initially balks at what it means to care for kids. He’s late to pick them up at the airport and hauls them into the back of his pickup truck with little concern for their safety. He barks “No te entiendo!” when his granddaughter tries to inform him (in English) of her younger brother’s dietary restrictions. He all but ignores their whining when they stare blankly at him and refuse to eat the fish he’s cooked for them. In due time though, he softens and finds himself enjoying this unexpected time with a family that was flourishing so far away from him.
The performances of all three of the young kids (particularly Isabella Sky’s Carolina, the eldest of Alma’s children) are wondrous. Whether they’re giggling while chasing chickens they weren’t allowed to mess with (as the aptly-titled Tejano track “Se fugaron las gallinas,” cowritten by Muñoz, plays in the background) or tearing up when they realize they won’t be going to “the other side” to see their mommy any time soon, they are wholly believable as kids who don’t know why their life is suddenly so different. Seeing them slowly adapt from the bustling streets of New York City to the barren landscapes of the desert (with vaquero hats and boots no less!) is a thrill. But it’s Damián’s role as Jorge, who’s nicknamed Abu by his grandchildren, that helps sell this tender tale. A man still in mourning over his late wife, he finds new ways of seeing the world when Carolina, José and Tomás join him in his remote desert house in the middle of nowhere. (Jorge still gripes about Alma’s inability to have come to her own mother’s funeral.) He’s gruff but sweet, emotionally stunted but eager to open his heart for those he loves.
Keenly attuned to the oft-harrowing effects the labyrinthine process of immigration can have on families from both sides of the border, Paper Boats finds in a small family drama the enormity of what so often is merely a newspaper headline or a cable news statistic. With its third act (which will call to mind Adriana Barraza’s plight in the middle of the desert in Babel) ups the stakes, Paper Boats is at its most endearing when it aims for simplicity and childlike wonder, all the while winking to its grown-up audience. The beats may be familiar but they land so beautifully and within such a culturally rich setting that they’re sure to win you over just as Carolina and her brothers win over Abu himself.
Paper Boats screened as part of the 2019 New York Latino Film Festival.