“Under the Same Moon” is extraordinarily sentimental and exciting at the same time.
The independent, Spanish-language film directed by Patricia Riggen tells the story of 9-year-old Carlitos, a resourceful Mexican boy who crosses the U.S./Mexican border — by himself on a search for his mother.
Seemingly tragic circumstances set him up for his journey. His grandmother, with whom he’s been living since his mother went to California to work illegally as a maid for money to send home, dies, and he’s not willing to accept the advances of his slimy uncle, his long-absent father’s brother.
With unwitting assistance from an older friend, a woman who helps smuggle Mexicans into the U.S., Carlitos hides under the floorboards of a vehicle driven by Mexican-American college students (Jesse Garcia and “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrara) looking to make a quick buck.
How they abandon him, and how he manages on his trek from Texas to Southern California, all the time evading immigration authorities, provide ongoing tension that fuels the film.
Meanwhile, his mother Rosario, not knowing her son’s fate, toils away at thankless work, and considers marrying a well-intentioned man she doesn’t love for a green card.
As Carlitos, Adrian Alonso (best known to Americans from “The Legend of Zorro”) carries the film, with his perfect blend of innocence and machismo. The actor, a veteran of five films, a soap opera and commercials, shows his experience.
Likewise, telenovela actress Kate del Castillo reveals Rosario’s dilemma: how the desperation of dreary work is tempered by her hope to give her son a better life.
Always engaging, the film falters in its black-and-white depiction of some characters and themes, from the saintly grandmother to the evil immigration police and Rosario’s unforgiving, selfish employer. While screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos’ simple treatment of complex issues gives the movie a bit of a Hallmark Hall of Fame tone, its passion is not unearned, and remains palpable.
Adding zest is an appearance by Los Tigres del Norte, one of Mexico’s most beloved musical acts. Another crowd-pleasing melodic scene occurs when Carlitos and his new protector, the adult Enrique (revered Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez), get a job in a restaurant kitchen, and get in a fight to the strains of the pop song “La Abusasora.” The scene is based on one in “Rancho Grande,” the first Mexican film with sound.
Under the Same Moon (3 stars)
Starring Adrian Alonso, Kate del Castillo, Eugenio Derbez, America Ferrera
Written by Ligiah Villalobos
Directed by Patricia Riggen
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes