‘Yellow Rose’ Film Review: A Young Immigrant Finds Her Voice in Routine Indie

Well-intentioned drama skims the surface of its heroine’s experience as a would-be country singer trying to stay clear of ICE

Last Updated: October 9, 2020 @ 10:49 AM

There’s no faulting “Yellow Rose” for its good intentions, but this tale of a young Filipina teen finding her voice as a country artist (while dealing with her immigration status) almost always feels like it’s skimming the surface of a deeper story.

Documentary director Diane Paragas makes her debut as a fiction filmmaker, and while she and cinematographer August Thurmer certainly achieve verisimilitude in their Texas locations — the flatness of Bastrop, the city lights of Austin, the bright stage of a honky-tonk — the screenplay by Paragas, Annie Howell (“Claire in Motion”), and Celena Cipriaso tells the story in the broadest strokes possible, and the lack of specificity undercuts the film’s impact.

High-schooler Rose (Broadway performer Eva Noblezada) lives in a Bastrop motel, where her widowed mother Priscilla (Princess Punzalan) works as a housekeeper. Priscilla lovingly and strictly tries to keep an eye on Rose’s whereabouts, since both are without legal documentation, which means that ICE could sweep in to arrest them at any moment. When Rose and her friend Elliot (Liam Booth, “Kindred Spirits”) sneak off to Austin to catch a show, the motel is raided, and Rose returns just in time to see Priscilla dragged off, in a harrowing sequence.

Priscilla leaves behind money for Rose, as well as a letter instructing her to go live with her estranged aunt Gail (the legendary Lea Salonga), but Gail’s Anglo husband quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t want Rose around. Rose is eventually taken in by kindly Austin dance-hall owner Jolene (Libby Villari, “Boyhood”), who gives her a job and a place to stay.

After ICE raids this location as well — Rose eludes capture only because a young officer takes pity on her — she moves in with local singer-songwriter Dale Watson (as himself), who gives her a camper to sleep in and encourages her to channel her heartbreak into her music.

“Yellow Rose” checks off a lot of boxes as a coming-of-age, artist-finds-her-voice story, but all of this would resonate so much more if, say, we knew anything about Rose beyond her desire to make music or if there were any sense of a larger Filipino community around her, as there certainly would be in Austin. (Or, at least, why Rose and her mother would be distanced from that community.) Rose, Priscilla, and Gail are the only Filipinas in the entire movie, which leaves it to a series of white saviors to step in and help Rose every time she needs assistance.

Even with such an underwritten character, Noblezada finds grace notes and moments of specificity to Rose; it’s got to be a challenge for a stage star to portray a performer with nervousness about crowds, but she conveys the character’s stage fright (and the degrees to which she eventually overcomes it) in a way that feels honest.

Salonga and Punzalan make the most of their abbreviated roles (the latter particularly conveys the heartbreak of her separation from her child), while Booth, Villari, and Watson do what they can with characters that basically call upon them to be nice.

Through no fault of its own, this movie pales next to another current film about Filipina immigrants striving to make it in the United States and coping with cruel immigration policies: Isabel Sandoval’s haunting “Lingua Franca,” now streaming on Netflix. Where Sandoval’s film achieves a kind of poetry, “Yellow Rose” remains disappointingly prosaic.