English as a Second Language


English as a Second Language

Maria Conchita Alonso chainsmokes and lectures her daughter.

(Inferno Filmworks) Kuno Becker, Danielle Camastra, John Michael Higgins, Maria Conchita Alonso, Efrain Figueroa, Harold Gould, Sal Lopez, Treva Etienne. Directed by Youssef Delara

America can be a really hard place to live, particularly for Latin American immigrants. While they can survive on a day-to-day basis without learning to speak English, in order to succeed and thrive here they must speak it fluently, or at least enough to get by.

Bolivar de la Cruz (Becker) has come to the United States illegally, crossing the border in order to make enough money to feed his family back home. He arrives starry-eyed, expecting the wealth and riches of America to fall at his feet. Instead, he encounters suspicion, prejudice and indifference in his quest to find work.

Lola Sara (Camastra) is the child of legal immigrants to the United States, living with one foot in each world. Her parents (Figueroa and Alonso) want the best for her and push her to attain a law degree, which would mean a comfortable life for herself and her family. She is less sure of what she wants and rebels in whichever way she can, partying with her friends and sleeping with men she picks up in the discos.

The worlds of these two people collide briefly when the car Bolivar is riding in is involved in an accident late one night with the car Lola is driving. Lola is clearly impaired and while Bolivar is eager to stay and make sure the young woman is all right, the others in the car, worried that they will be caught and returned to Mexico, flee the scene. Lola winds up being arrested for driving under the influence and is ordered to do community service.

Bolivar is having a terrible time finding work. He goes day after day to a local hardware store where people come to hire illegal aliens and while many of the people waiting there are hired, Bolivar is not. He meets Pepe (Lopez), who tells him that the secret to finding work is learning English. He tells him about free English as a second language classes at the local community college.

As it turns out, Lola’s community service assignment is at that very class, serving as a teacher’s aide. Bolivar is pleased to see that she is all right although she barely remembers him. Still, he feels drawn to her and asks if she can tutor him which she turns down.

Bolivar learns enough English to get hired as a day laborer at the house of a club owner (Higgins) who has difficulty keeping his hands to himself. He offers Bolivar a job dancing at his club but Bolivar, disturbed at his advances, refuses. Eventually, broke and with nowhere to stay, he relents and begins dancing as a male stripper at the club, making more cash than he ever could have imagined. This leads to work in the “back rooms” as a club, giving private dances away to middle-aged women which is a euphemism for male prostitution.

Lola becomes one of his clients one night, which leads to further interaction between the two. She has gotten pregnant from one of her one-night stands and needs to go get an abortion, but doesn’t want to go alone – and there’s nobody else to take her. Desperate, she turns to the gold-hearted Bolivar who takes her for her abortion. Even though he is married, there is some attraction between the two which leads her mother to mistake him for the father of the baby when she accidentally finds out about her daughter’s pregnancy.

In the meantime, Lola has found that she has a flair for teaching and that she rather enjoys it. Bolivar is making money but his life is falling apart. Can these two worlds truly co-exist?

This is a movie that got little notice other than some awards in smaller film festivals, mainly those catering to Latin cinema. Despite the presence of rising star Becker and studio interest, it was deemed unmarketable and wound up going quickly to video and cable television. That’s a shame because this is a solid, well-acted movie that gives insight into the Latin immigrant experience that we rarely get to see in the movies, certainly not as authentically as we see it here.

Alonso, who had some high-profile roles in the 80s and 90s, is still an attractive woman playing a matronly role unusual for the former beauty queen. She handles the role admirably and is one of the best things about the movie as the bitter, chain-smoking mom. Her relationship with her daughter is strained, and some of their confrontational scenes ring oh so true. Higgins also does some fine work in a fairly negative role.

Becker, the Mexican soap star who has found mainstream stardom in the Goal movies, fares less well. Playing the naïve Bolivar, his character goes from sunny to embittered during the course of the movie, finding little about America to love. Although he clearly has the physique for the role, he seemed lost at times, and I got the clear impression that he was unsure of his own abilities to carry the role. There are plenty of fine Mexican and Latin actors who might have done better in the role, but Becker certainly has star power in the Latin community.

Director Delara has a fine eye for color and composition, which serves the movie well. It is an excellent-looking film that captures the flair and atmosphere of the Latino community in Los Angeles, from the discos to the taquerias to the workplaces and finally to the homes. It is a compelling work that would have benefited from better casting in the lead, but still in all worth seeing as a different viewpoint on the immigrant experience. Considering the Bush Administration’s efforts to demonize the Latin immigrant community (particularly those who arrived illegally), it is a timely message to humanize what is often painted with a prejudiced brush.

WHY RENT THIS: A compelling look at the Latin experience in the United States. Fine supporting performances from Alonso and Higgins

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat sudsy at times. Becker seems lost in his role.

FAMILY VALUES: While the movie is rated “R” and there are scenes depicting violence, sexuality and drug use, this really is quite suitable for older and more mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Delara also worked as a visual effects coordinator on several Star Trek movies and television shows.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: King of California

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