- Nobody calls anybody Papi.
- No dancing to salsa music.
- No gratuitous Spanish.
By that standard, this latest entry in the dysfunctional family holiday movie genre is 0 for 3. And yet, this movie is made by Latinos with a lot of affection for its characters. And so even though it also includes what should be a similar no-no trifecta of family holiday dramadies (sibling rivalry, dramatic revelations, sad news to remind everyone how much they love each other) and even though it does not meet the standard of last year’s fine This Christmas, this family might be worth a holiday visit.
Parents Edy and Anna Rodriguez (Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena, both superb), owners of a small bodega, live in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. Their children are coming home for Christmas: Iraqi war veteran Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez, who also produced), aspiring actress Roxanne (Vanessa Ferlito of Grindhouse), and Mauricio (John Leguizamo) with his white, Jewish wife Sarah (Debra Messing), successful professionals. Also waiting for them at home are Jesse’s one-time girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), Edy’s top employee (Jay Hernandez), and a lot of unresolved issues.
We can feel the warmth of the Rodriguez home and the stars quickly create an authentic sense of the rhythms and short-cuts of family communication, the struggle between wanting things to be the way they were and wanting to be seen as they are now. Predictable frustrations as Sarah tries to fit in while maintaining her own boundaries and Jesse and Roxanne try to live up to their parents hopes for them are given enough specificity to hold our attention. Sarah is not an uptight snob; she loves her husband and very much wants his family to accept her. She has a couple of nice moments with Edy, especially when, after Anna pushes yet another thing to eat on her as she is getting ready to go running, Edy quietly reaches for it. We get a sense of their unspoken understanding, which will become more important later on. There’s a dead tree (and metaphor) blocking the view from the house that Anna has been trying to get Edy to cut down for 25 years, and that will play a role as well.
Anna leads off at the family dinner by announcing she plans to get a divorce, catapulting the children into a difficult recalibration of their familial roles. As children, they cannot help feeling abandoned but as adults they have to find a way to see their parents as people who have to make their own choices. Like all families, everyone feels they have a better understanding of what everyone else should do. And like all families, that leads to conflict.
Notwithstanding the Morales concerns, the location settings and “sorta-Rican” culture are nicely evocative. But the real treat is seeing these fine performers, too often relegated to character parts, take center stage to remind us that the reason there is nothing like the holidays because of the way they bring us together.