For her first feature-length film, documentarian Isabel Castro set out to capture a widely experienced, yet still broadly overlooked immigrant perspective. And there’s a line late in “Mija” that sums up her sensitive approach so succinctly that it could be pulled out and used as a logline: “We inherit our families’ dreams, but also their fears.”
The observation is sighed as much as it’s said, by aspiring musician Jacks Haupt. Haupt is one of Castro’s two young protagonists, but her story is depicted as a connective bridge to many others.
Both of Castro’s subjects are first-generation Mexican-Americans who carry the full weight of their undocumented parents’ lives. This includes not only their dreams and fears but also their more immediate choices and challenges.
The film’s formidable center is Doris Muñoz, who at 25 is already working overtime as a music manager, an activist and the person most responsible for keeping her family afloat. As the only U.S. citizen, she helps support her older brother (who was deported to Mexico several years earlier) while trying to get green cards for her parents, who can’t leave the country to see him.
She is still stunned by her own professional and financial success, which began when she started managing “a kid named Omar,” whom she met near her San Bernardino neighborhood. Omar soon became better known as Cuco, and with her help and his rapidly exploding fanbase, their early backyard parties transformed into packed arena concerts.
Castro’s choice to work so closely with Muñoz, rather than at a traditional documentarian’s distance, does create a valuable and tender familiarity. The director makes nice use of old family videos and develops a strong enough bond that it often feels as if Muñoz is inviting us into her life personally. But this interconnected approach also leads to some noticeable lapses.
After several scenes depicting Muñoz’s early professional achievements, we learn that she and Cuco have parted ways. Muñoz, who is devastated, prefers to keep the details of their break private. She worked for months with Castro to shape her own voiceover, which means we’re left with a markedly wide hole in the middle of the movie. “I think we just wanted different things, or maybe I’m just not cut out for this industry,” is her vague explanation. A fuller portrait would have asked more not just from her but would have included Cuco’s viewpoint as well.
However, this unexpected setback leads to the film’s compelling second half, in which Muñoz decides she is, indeed, cut out for the music industry. She finds a new artist in Haupt, and brings the teenage singer-songwriter from Dallas to LA.
Again, much of this segment has been shaped by Muñoz and Castro, which gives some scenes a sheen of professional promotion. But the struggles, mentorship, and support between Muñoz and Haupt feel poignantly real. And it remains tremendously moving to see how they help each other achieve the dreams, and mitigate the fears, of their families.
Castro and editor-cinematographer Ora Dekornfeld do a beautiful job capturing the schism between a first-generation child’s micro desires and macro responsibilities. During one lovely segment, Haupt has a thrilling week, meeting with a record label and dressing up for a fantasy photo shoot; to her, the sky remains the limit. But she, and we, are brought abruptly back to earth during a painful call back home. Where she sees almost unimaginable success in front of her, her parents see inevitable loss and disappointment for all of them. They need her to take the more traditional, and therefore safer, path by going to school or getting a full-time job.
The film’s best scenes are, in a way, the flip side to its weaker ones: the closeness between Castro and her subjects lessens their objectivity but strengthens their intimacy. There is a segment towards the end, when Muñoz and her parents share an intensely important, personal and fraught moment, that should reduce even the most hard-hearted viewer to tears.
“We are a continuation of something bigger than ourselves” Muñoz asserts, and proves, over and over. Throughout “Mija,” she and Castro expand that “something” to include everyone she touches. Audience included.
“Mija” streams Friday, Sept. 16, on Disney+ after opening in U.S. theaters Aug. 5.