It’s Passover in Barcelona and newly engaged lovers Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) a Palestinian professor and Leni (Mariana Aguilera) a Jewish actress apprehensively arrive at her parents’ home after a grueling time in airport customs. Within minutes of stepping into the chaotic apartment of her eccentric Jewish family--of course they believe Rafi to be Israeli--we are instantly thrown into Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with Romeo and Juliet Focker. The characters move and scramble about as we meet Leni’s redheaded Yamaka-wearing younger brother David (Fernando Ramallo) busy imposing his strong religious beliefs on his liberal family--taping light switches lighting candles and hiding cell phones in an attempt to recognize The Sabbath. Then there's Leni's endearing yet provocative older sister Tania (Maria Botto) who has a penchant for sleeping with strangers and belly dancing. Rafi can barely catch his breath when mom Gloria (Norma Aleandro) finds out he’s not Jewish. The tail spin has begun and through a series of witty dialogue rich in political overtones as well as Woody Allen-esque slapstick we stand in disbelief as one of the worlds most dysfunctional families attempt to find harmony amidst utter chaos. As the wiry curly-haired University level Arabic literature teacher Toledo succeeds in turning Rafi into a one-man-show á la Italian funnyman Roberto Benigni and is a pleasure to watch as he’s dumped into one unfortunate mishap after another. And although his fiancée in the film is well played by Aguilera it is Botto’s sexiness and charm--not to mention absolutely delightful dance scene with Rafi--that adds much needed flare to the ensemble cast. And as the blind slightly deaf and questionably senile war veteran Grandpa Dudu Max Berliner brilliantly transforms himself into a delightful male version of Ruth Gordon wandering about the home aimlessly delivering laugh after laugh. Oscar-nominated Aleandro (Gaby) rules her family with boundless neuroses and it is as if she walks through walls to some how always be in the right place at the wrong time to interject her opinions into just about every scene. The impudent niece wannabe fundamentalist brother as well as a colorful group of characters we meet along the way one-liners and well-timed comedic scenes could quite possibly turn this little dish into a major course. Husband and wife filmmaking team Teresa De Pelegri and Dominic Harari successfully accomplish what they set out to--creating a smart witty and hilarious film about two polar opposite backgrounds and bringing it together in a taut politically viable and eloquent way. At no point are we asked to choose a side in the film only to sit back relax and listen as the characters play out a delicate situation in an organic comedy-first way. Only Human eventually strips away any impressions we may have had by blurring the lines so much we can’t help but find similarities in their backgrounds. In 85 minutes we are given just enough to fulfill our appetites for these characters--and even if it feels at times like the story is trying a bit too hard exhausting certain points a simple act of vaudevillian comedy refreshes everything for us. This film is a fun ride filled with everything from sexiness physical comedy and toilet humor moments what would do a Farrelly brother proud.
Innocent Voices depicts the brutal reality of El Salvador’s 1980 civil war as seen through eyes of an 11 year-old boy who may soon get drafted by the army despite not understanding what the war is about. Though both sides were soldiered with young boys it was the government that actively recruited all 12-year-olds and forced them to fight. Eleven year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) is about to turn but that doesn’t stop him from trying to enjoy life. Since he’s the man of the house--his father left to earn money in America and never returned--Chava wants a job so he can help his overworked mom (Leonor Varela) who quit her restaurant job to stay home and shield her three children from stray bullets. His first job comes when he stumbles upon an old bus owned by a jovial but careless bus driver (Jesus Ochoa). The two become instant friends as Chava rides the railing and calls out the stops. Meanwhile he discovers love after summoning the courage to ask the teacher’s daughter to fly paper fireflies with his friends. All the while the moment he has dreaded--his 12th birthday--looms large over his days. His Uncle Beto (José María Yazpik) a guerilla fighter on the run tries to convince his mother to let Chava live with him in the hills where it’s safe but she can’t let him go. Once he turns Chava must hide with the other boys when the soldiers come around to recruit. But he grows tired of hiding and takes matters into his own hands running off to join the guerillas where he discovers a fate worse than fighting--that of never seeing his family again. Perhaps the strongest element in the film is the surprisingly mature Padilla. Getting a child actor to perform on any level can sometimes be an exercise in futility but director Luis Mandoki manages to get Padilla able to run the gamut of emotions--joy fear the awkwardness of new love--in a very real and convincing way. While most directors would shy away from placing so young an actor into difficult situations particularly the climactic scene where Chava faces execution and watches his two best friends get shot in the back of the head Mandoki defies conventional wisdom and challenges Padilla who is most worthy of the call. As Kella Varela exudes strength despite her constant worry over her children particularly Chava whose arrival home after curfew causes her to feel rage worry forgiveness and joy in a matter of seconds. Legendary Mexican actress Ofelia Medina has a small but important supporting role as Kella’s mother--she provides her daughter’s family with their last peaceful refuge before their lives are destroyed by the army. Minor characters such as Uncle Beto the Bus Driver and Chava’s classmates all serve their purpose though Xuna Primus the classmate Chava falls in love with handles emotional scenes with Padilla with similar maturity. Innocent Voices marks the first Spanish-language film for Mandoki since the international success of Gaby-A True Story--and he’s back true to form. With Innocent Voices he has crafted a powerful and emotionally gripping film that never shies from the ugly realities of how war destroys families and makes men of boys well before their time. Sharing screenwriting credit with actor Oscar Torres on whom the story is based Mandoki benefits from his strong cast particularly Padilla; a wrong choice in casting Chava could have sunk the film. Mandoki masterfully lulls us into thinking that Chava might have some hope of living a normal life in El Salvador--he plays with friends just like any other kid. But every time it looks as though Chava is experiencing life as he should bombs explode machine guns erupt and soldiers come storming in to remind us that he’s living in the middle of a civil war. Ultimately Chava’s only escape is to America but he must leave behind his family much like his father in the beginning. It’s a nice bookend to Chava’s development: Despite the chaos around him his position as head of the family and the specter of being recruited into the army his real transformation into manhood comes when he finds the courage to strike out on his own.
When he's not playing basketball feeding his fish working in the mall food court or hanging out with nerdy hyper-manic Virgil (Jason Tobin) 16-year-old Ben (Parry Shen) is applying to Ivy League universities studying for exams and memorizing vocabulary words for the academic decathlon. He has a crush on his bio lab partner the pretty cheerleader Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) and finds himself hanging out with her with the blessing of her rich arrogant boyfriend Steve (John Cho) with whom he strikes up an uneasy friendship--until Ben learns Steve's cheating on Stephanie. Ben is busy but bored. Life gets way more interesting when popular slick Daric (Roger Fan) who hangs out with Virgil's thug cousin Han (Sung Kang) talks Ben and tag-along Virgil into selling cheat sheets. This evolves into selling drugs stealing and other nefarious activities. In short order this fearsome foursome is known around school for toting guns starting fights drinking heavily and dealing the best cocaine around. They do it because they can: Their intelligence makes them feel superior and the stereotypes associated with their race (they're "the smart good kids") enable them to get away with it until things spin out of control; Ben wakes up with nosebleeds from the drugs he did to stay up all night studying and his beloved fish die of neglect.
Shen as Ben doesn't have as much personality as his three friends but that's appropriate. Wide-eyed he absorbs what they do like a sponge stiff and unbending at first then happily going along with the slyly manipulative Daric after he realizes there are no prices to pay only rewards to gain for their nihilistic actions. All the teens down to the pertly innocent cheerleader and her boyfriend are not evil so much as simply morally bankrupt. You don't really like any of them but you somehow understand why they do what they do. All actors are virtual unknowns but their performances are impressive.
Although the movie defiantly knocks the meek studious Asian stereotype upside down and around the corner their race ends up being almost beside the point. They could be the latchkey Everykids found in any upper-middle-class American community nowadays disaffected and bored with life in an increasingly short-attention-span pressure-cooker society. Director Justin Lin "gets" the essence of the kids and deftly handles their story with sharp editing edgy camerawork darkly funny script (some lines are priceless) and an excellent punk-pop soundtrack (fittingly Better Luck is the first theatrical acquisition for MTV Films). This film does run a little on the long side and makes one wonder if Lin had a hard time figuring out where and how to end it (reportedly the film's shocking ending was actually toned down from what was originally intended).