At first Amexicano isn’t much more than your average, cute indie-with-a-message, sporting clean, simple shots and naturalistic if somewhat shallow acting. Then, towards the end, something changes. Director Matt Bonifacio’s film has let you live in its little world but suddenly rips down the walls.
Bruno (Carmine Famigliette, who also wrote the film) has no job and lives in his friend’s basement. Two months behind on the rent, he accepts construction work from his friend. The friend, Alex (played with nice gruffness, depth, and subtle strength by Michael Aronov), tells Bruno to pick up a day laborer to help him. Bruno freaks and spews some silliness about how he’s sure he’ll pick one of the criminal Mexicans who will slit his throat. Alex assures him the guys work hard and worry too much about their status to screw around — and they’ll accept any pay rate.
After a shaky experience with an aggressive laborer named Diego (an overtly villainous Manny Perez), Bruno starts working with a quiet guy named Ignacio, building a fence in a suburban backyard. (Insert Robert Frost reference here. Ironic, considering the whole border-fence idea, pero bueno.) Bruno, though ignorant and very English-only, seems well intending and has a nice innocence about him, while Ignacio is attractive and works hard. The two fall into a whirlwind romance: They bond over lucha libre and start to teach each other their respective languages. Things move so fast that Bruno defends Ignacio when Alex accuses him of stealing, and they take the relationship to the next level, playing fútbol together, have dinner with Ignacio’s pretty wife, Gabriela (singer Jennifer Peña), a birthday party, and sleep-overs.
Then Ignacio takes Bruno — whom Alex has fired and evicted — to the corner with him to look for work. Diego starts trouble about it, and Ignacio defends his Bruno: “Es casi mexicano. Es amexicano.” It’s a nice slight of hand, having the immigrant bestow the slightly diminutive, border-crossing nickname on the USian. But Diego doesn’t take it well. He soon, after a brief, bizarre, and out-of-place scene, sets off a rather crazy chain of events that slams a switch and sets the film off down an unexpected track, plunging Bruno and the viewers into the infamous “shadow” existence of the undocumented and the would-be border crossers — the constant threats of denunciation to immigration authorities, medical danger, shyster lawyers, coyotes, the Border Patrol, and the oppressive sun of the borderlands.
The movie suddenly becomes great in a way by going serious while managing to avoid sensationalism. The details are spot on, and the film acquires an artistic depth it lacked up until now. The camera work, the sound choices, and the writing really step it up, and Amexicano suddenly becomes a powerful film, while staying small and simple. The filmmakers say the extremity and timing of the switch allowed them to depict how fragile is the life of the undocumented here, how things can coast along so well (if not easily) and suddenly, inexplicably explode.
The acting is fine. Famigliette — who also wrote and produced the film — and Peña are cute, if mostly obvious and a bit indicative. Though Famigliette does some really excellent work towards the end. Perez doesn’t do much (or maybe does too much) for Diego, depicting a too-obvious Evildoer complete with goatee, tattoos, drinking, smoking, knife-wielding, and insulting of his fellow day laborers. A little more time in his story would have helped avoid the pitfalls the filmmakers knew lay before the character. (And is he playing Dominican? Mexican? Dominican with Mexican influence? It’s unclear to me — though accurate, according to Bonifacio and Famigliette, who told me they’ve come across confusing guys like Diego.) But Raul Castillo does very nice work as Ignacio — vibrant, real, seemingly effortless, and, thankfully, wholly without stereotype.
Amexicano won’t shake the world. It’s too uneven for that. But it certainly has value, sending a puff of strange, mild — but fresh — wind out into the atmosphere. The obvious veracity, evident to those familiar with some of the hallmarks of undocumented life, does so much for the film and for us. Famigliette drew much of the story from his own experiences with day laborers and the research he and Bonifacio did. (The idea for the film, though, came to him in a dream.) And they relied heavily on the Latinos on the cast and crew — like the Mexican Castillo to bring that veracity to life. Amexicano joins a growing body of films bringing light to the complexity of The Immigration Issue and breathing real life into The Immigrant, as we imagine him in today’s USA, so we can see him as a person rather than a concept. The film brings approaches a hotly debated subject without judgment but with compassion for everyone involved. That’s what art is supposed to do. That’s where change starts.