“When people exist under one roof, a tiny society forms—the stuff of novellas. Masters and servants unconsciously dancing in lockstep. So that when things go wrong, problems converge.”
When someone mentions the American immigrant story, we have lots of examples of Europeans coming to America in the 1800s to start their new life in the new world, but we don’t have a lot of examples of modern immigrants from other places who are trying to do the same thing. Spanglish gives us the perspective of a young girl immigrating to America with her single mother from Mexico. Written and directed by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets) and starring Paz Vega, Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, and Shelbie Bruce, this is a film that really captures the beauty of Mexican-American culture and evokes some deep feelings that you don’t often see in film. It’s definitely more of a feeling movie than a thinking movie. The plot feels at times like a sitcom and some of the situations feel a bit forced. But the feelings it stirs up and the ideas it deals with are specific, unique, and very real. How many other films deal with cultural appropriation, white guilt, and gender stereotypes while keeping things light, funny, and watchable? Reviews on this film were very mixed—as of writing this, this is the lowest-ranked film on my list according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with a 52% approval rating. But this is a film I’ve loved for years and enjoy every time I watch it.
The story focuses on Mexican mother Flor as she immigrates to America and tries to start a new life there, but it’s narrated by her daughter Cristina years after the fact, so we get bits of commentary from her that add a lot of depth. Flor lands a job for a wealthy white family as a nanny/maid and manages to separate her life in white America from her life in Hispanic America, where she keeps her daughter. But when the white mother Deborah invites Flor to stay with them for the summer in a Malibu beach home, she’s forced to bring Cristina into white culture. Deborah and Cristina form a quick bond, although Deborah never quite understands the culture Cristina came from. But Deborah and her husband John start having marital issues, driving John to form a connection with Flor. And Cristina starts to integrate into white culture at an alarming rate, causing some anxiety in Flor.
Is what you want for yourself to become someone very different than me?
Spanglish really captures the experience of someone from a different culture coming in and observing white America as an outsider. I’m biracial, but the white part of me was cringing in a few scenes (while also laughing) as the hopelessly out-of-touch Deborah tried and failed to connect with and appreciate Flor and Cristina—and then failed to realize that she had failed. White people aren’t portrayed as universally negative here. John is actually shown to be sensitive and caring and he does well dealing with Flor’s anxiety and apprehension, and John and Deborah’s teenage daughter, Bernice, is very admirable in her earnest friendship with Cristina. But Deborah’s antics were painfully accurate, although hilarious, and they shed a light on a lot of the things people from other cultures have to endure when they come to America.
This film can feel sugary-sweet and even contrived at times, but it’s honestly refreshing to see a film about subtle racism and cultural differences that’s so light and upbeat. Racial matters are illuminated in a way that all of us can laugh at, and that’s no easy task. Spanglish seeks to inspire rather than condemn, and it accomplishes that through humor, charm, and a few heartwarming scenes. The dialogue and actor performances are all perfect for this light, heartwarming tone, and even Adam Sandler puts on a terrific thoughtful performance. It doesn’t set out to end racism; it just wants us to see how beautiful Mexican-American culture is, and it’s pretty hard not to love most of these characters, Mexican and white alike.
Spanglish is an excellent comedy-drama about immigrating to America in modern times, and it’s illuminating without being difficult or boring. It’s a rare film that can bring me joy, warmth, and positivity every time I watch it, and it captures a rare (in the American cinematic landscape) piece of American culture. I can’t say the film is brilliant, but it’s fun and definitely worth a watch. If you have a personal connection to the Hispanic experience in America, or if you’re just curious about it, this is a must-see.
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Director: James L. Brooks
Genres: comedy, drama