Earlier this year, Under the Same Moon (originally titled La Misma Luna) was bought at Sundance by Fox Searchlight and The Weinstein Company for a surprisingly high amount of money. It's understandable because underneath the film's unsubtle messages about undocumented Mexican workers working to survive in the U.S., it's essentially an old-fashioned family melodrama. I caught the film at Austin Film Festival this year, and it's currently scheduled to hit theaters in March 2008.

Rosario (Kate del Castillo) is a young immigrant from Mexico living and working in Los Angeles to support her nine-year-old son Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), who lives with Rosario's mother in Mexico. He hasn't seen his mother in four years and misses her terribly. Meanwhile, Rosario is trying to scrape up enough money for a lawyer to help her bring Carlitos to America legally. When his grandmother dies, Carlitos decides to cross the border himself and travel to Los Angeles to find his mother, because he's scared she'll forget about him. He encounters an unlikely lot of helpers and companions during his attempt, including American college students (America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia) who want to make extra money smuggling children over the border, and Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), a migrant worker who has no desire to deal with a small child on his hands.

The movie is Patricia Riggen's feature directorial debut. It begins a little confusingly -- we don't know the characters yet, so in the opening scene where people are trying to cross the border at night, the focus is unclear. The following sequence seems to be meant to show what Rosario is doing in Los Angeles at the same time that Carlos is in Mexico, but it takes a minute to realize they're not all in the same house. Once the setup is complete, however, the plot progresses steadily and smoothly.

Under the Same Moon has an overt agenda: it wants to make you think about the plight of U.S. undocumented workers, and it's not at all subtle about it. Rosario is treated badly by a woman for whom she cleans house, who tells her, "What are you going to do, call the police? Go right ahead." The message is broadcast literally through local radio in the background, such as Spanish-language deejays making jokes about immigration law, and an amusing song about how Superman didn't enter this country legally, either. The story itself should have been able to carry this message alone, and might have been more effective without all the embellishments; as it is, it feels like overkill.

The storyline and many of the characters are stock -- change the actors in the story to Jackie Cooper and Irene Dunne, and maybe Fredric March, and the plot would work perfectly as a 1930s weepie. We've all seen movies about characters attempting a cross-country journey under difficult circumstances. It is not quite believable that a nine-year-old would be as canny -- and as lucky -- as Carlitos, but then this is not meant to be a gritty realistic film. It's a melodrama with inspirational moments, designed to make you smile through tears.

Fortunately, the performances help pull the movie out of tired melodrama and make it watchable -- especially Adrian Alonso as Carlitos. I liked this movie even though the dialogue occasionally seemed trite, even though I rolled my eyes at caricatures of "bad" people, even though it bordered on the emotionally manipulative ... even though I suspected I knew the ending because of the companies that had bought the distribution rights. The story is not innovative, it travels a very familiar road. But the main characters and a few of the minor ones, like Paco the security guard who loves Rosario and Carmen who runs a business of sneaking people over the border, were all warm and real and avoided the easy stereotypes. Despite its flaws, Under the Same Moon is an entertaining film that knows how to charm an audience.
CATEGORIES Reviews, Cinematical