October 8, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Immigration and the plight of undocumented workers is as relevant now as it has ever been. Writer-director (and fellow Longhorn) Diane Paragas and co-writers Andy Bienen, Annie J Howell, and Celena Cipriaso have expanded Ms. Paragas’ 2017 short film of the same name into her first feature length project. Although it covers some familiar topics, the film has a distinct look and feel to it … the vision of an interesting new filmmaker as she provides a glimpse at the struggles and challenges facing undocumented folks, both young and older.

Eva Noblezaba stars as Rose Garcia, a 17 year old undocumented Filipino living in the outskirts of Austin in the hotel where her widowed mother (also undocumented) cleans rooms. This is Ms. Noblezaba’s first film, and she’s best known for playing Kim in the stage production of “Miss Saigon”. Here, she’s the teenage daughter of a very protective mother, and she spends her time trying to fit in at school, while also jotting down Country Music song lyrics in her Townes Van Zandt notebook, and strumming the battered guitar her late father gave her. Rose professes no interest in singing her songs for others, but that and everything else changes in one eventful night.

Elliott (Liam Booth), a friend in her class and an admirer of hers, invites her for night out in Austin at the Broken Spoke, “the last of the true Texas Dance Halls”, where Austin Country Music icon Dale Watson is performing. An underage Rose over drinks, but also catches the performing “bug”, and loves everything about the honkytonk atmosphere. The youngsters return to the motel just as ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) is finishing up a raid, and are taking Rose’s mother (Princess Punzalan) into custody. Rose’s mother instructs her to seek shelter with her Aunt Gail.

Gail (Tony winner Leah Salonga) lives in an upscale Austin neighborhood – quite the contrast to the life Rose and her mother have been living. Gail is sympathetic to Rose’s plight, but Gail’s husband doesn’t want to get mixed up with harboring an illegal. So Rose recognizes that she’s unwanted and seeks refuge with Jolene (Libby Villari), the owner of Broken Spoke (Ms. Villari gives an excellent performance, though it should be noted that the infamous James White is the real life owner of the iconic dance hall). Jolene offers Rose a bed in a back room of the club, something a great many Austinites would pay handsomely for (maybe it should be an AirBnB!).

Dale Watson turns into a reluctant mentor for Rose, and the two write songs and perform together. Mr. Watson is a natural playing the on screen version of himself. There is a lot going on here, as this teenager from the Philippines proves she is strong-willed in both pursuing assistance for her mother, and in following her Country Music dream … all while maneuvering through the obstacles of being undocumented. There is inherent racism in the film’s title (Rose’s nickname at school), but director Paragas never allows politics to override Rose’s personal story.

watch the trailer


January 12, 2017

claire-in-motion Greetings again from the darkness. A math professor and an art professor are apt to view the world discordantly, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of a strong personal relationship together. After planting a morning kiss on the cheek of his wife, Paul sets off on a one-man survival hike through the hills and forest. When he doesn’t return, the mystery begins. Only it’s not really a mystery, and it’s certainly not the thriller it seems to be disguised as. Rather, it’s a character study of how a rational mind works to make sense of a world that can’t always be explained logically.

Lisa Robinson and Annie J Howell have co-written and co-directed this story that gives Betsy Brandt a chance to really spread her dramatic acting wings after her time on “Breaking Bad”. Here she plays Claire, a math professor, wife, and mother to Connor (Zev Haworth). Being of sound mind and structured thought, Claire immediately starts trying to find the logical reason for the disappearance of her husband. What she discovers is her husband often secretly veered from the structured life she so valued. This leads Claire to an awkward meeting with Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), one of his grad students. It turns out Allison and Paul had a pretty close connection over an upcoming art project.

By now, you are probably sure you have this movie figured out. Fortunately, the filmmakers ensure it’s not as predictable as you might think. It’s not a thriller like Gone Girl or Deceived. We watch Claire re-trace Paul’s steps on a path unfamiliar to her, and this evolves into a self-realization that she had been sleep-walking through life: doing her job, raising her kid, going home each day. There’s a key moment when she’s watching an old video of herself and Paul, and he says “look at me”. It’s at this point she begins to understand – and it’s enhanced by a chance meeting in a bar with a former student. Maybe Paul isn’t the only missing person.

Son Connor probably doesn’t get the screen time his character deserves. Like his father, Connor has some secrets of his own. His friends don’t know he enjoys knitting, and he intends to keep it that way. It’s one more indicator that no matter how close we are to someone, we don’t know or share all. Finding and discovering one’s self can be a torturous process before it ever reaches enlightenment, and though the story short-changes the process of grief, we do understand not to mindlessly nod when someone says “you know me”.

watch the trailer: