It'd be nice to think that Under The Same Moon director Patricia Riggen and writer Ligiah Villalobos are secret masters of their craft—that their film's tics between mawkish manipulation and raw emotion are a purposeful experiment in breaking down viewers' analytical faculties until they surrender to the experience. More likely, though, it's just hard to handle material this cloying with any kind of consistent dignity. Their story about a Mexican mother and son yearning for each other across the border is at its best as a personal story rather than a political tract, but it's so tied to stereotypes and broad contrivance that there's little room for honest emotion to leak through.
Kate del Castillo stars as an illegal Mexican immigrant working as an L.A. maid; for the past four years, she's been saving up to have her now-nine-year-old son (Adrian Alonso) brought to America. But both of them are weary of their long separation. (Mom, via phone: "You need anything, sweetheart?" Son: "You!") So when Alonso's home situation changes for the worse, he hits the dangerous road to L.A. on his own.
The film—part road movie, part Trade-esque issue film, part The Incredible Journey with a kid protagonist in place of cute animals—depends heavily on Alonso's charisma. Fortunately, he delivers; he's a precocious, perky kid who plays it straight, without cutesiness or mugging. But the film isn't as restrained. His picaresque journey—getting smuggled across the border by America Ferrera, harvesting tomatoes with migrant workers, washing dishes in a roadside diner, caroming around in a van full of mariachi performers, getting chased by the thuggish INS—crams far too much incident into a small space, turning the story into an awkwardly broad, shallow metaphor for the immigrant experience. Meanwhile, the filmmakers wring every possible drop of pathos out of del Castillo's angst, her exploitation by a bitchy, overprivileged white employer, and the possibility that she might have to marry a stranger to get a green card.
Under The Same Moon has its moments, particularly in a sweet magical-realist sequence and a surprisingly restrained ending. The relationship between Alonso and curmudgeonly migrant worker Eugenio Derbez is winning on the sheer charm of the performances, even as it channels countless "orphan child wins the heart of cranky loner" films. But unimaginative direction (apart from the peculiar Italian neo-realist accordion soundtrack) and an overstuffed plot keep Moon bland and shallow, a harmless feel-good movie that tries to tell audiences what it's like to be a victimized immigrant, and mostly winds up telling them what it's like to have their heartstrings yanked, gratuitiously and often.