Eugenio Derbez's Instructions Not Included has taken Hollywood by surprise with a $10 million (£6.6 million) opening, becoming the largest debut for a Spanish-language film ever over America's Labor Day holiday. The movie, which Derbez wrote, directed and starred in, ranked fifth overall at the U.S. box office - just behind much larger films like Lee Daniels' The Butler, One Direction: This is Us and Planes.
Instructions Not Included follows the story of a ladies' man who is forced into single parenthood after he becomes a dad to a daughter.
Derbez has only starred in a few movies in the U.S., but he is a big name in Latin America and relied heavily on his social media presence to promote the film. It opened in 347 theatres, earning $28,800 (£19,200) in average ticket sales at each venue, according to Hollywood.com.
The coming-of-age movie is nothing new of course; it's just that so often their subjects are sulky teen boys or man-children. Movies like Thirteen Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains The Legend of Billie Jean and even Mean Girls are few and far between and even when they do appear like blips on a radar the casts are usually entirely white upper middle class teens. Girl in Progress is a lighter take on the adolescent turmoil and it's often heavy-handed and its characters seem flat but one thing it does with ease is put Latinas front and center without any sort of back-patting or race-related teachable moments. That's not to say Girl in Progress doesn't occasionally dip into Lifetime movie territory though.
Girl in Progress stars Cierra Ramirez as Ansiedad a budding teen who wants to be absolutely nothing like her irresponsible party girl mom Grace played by Eva Mendes. When Ansiedad's teacher Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette) tells her class about coming-of-age rituals and how they're used to navigate between the world of childhood and adulthood she takes it as a literal guide to leaving her childhood — and her mother — behind.
Ansiedad is clever and a bit of a goody-two-shoes; she outlines a plan to go from being a regular girl to a woman as if it were a multimedia project for history. She explains in detail the different stages — acting out losing her virginity to a bad boy etc. — to her best friend Tavita (Raini Rodriguez) who looks on skeptically but agrees to help her friend even when part of the plan includes dumping her dorky BFF. Naturally the best-laid plans of teen girls often go awry and Ansiedad learns the hard way that these things are actually all pretty crappy ways to try become an adult. Unfortunately her dialogue is often reduced to exposition; she literally explains to the adults around her the steps she's at in her transformation. It undercuts Ramirez's performance and distances us from engaging with her emotionally.
Grace is Ansiedad's foil; she never finishes anything she moves them from town to town and she makes poor choices in men. Although this character could have really gone off the rails Mendes isn't vying for a dramatic Oscar bid; yes Grace likes to dance and drink and she's not a present mom but she's an overgrown teenager not a cruel parent. Unfortunately this is overemphasized with scenes of Grace getting ready to go out eating cereal sitting on the counter (and drinking the milk from the bowl of course) or falling asleep with her shoes on which Ansiedad carefully removes.
There's a subplot with Grace and two men but it doesn't do much to forward the story. One is her boyfriend a married gynecologist played by Matthew Modine and the other is a guy she works with at the crab shack whose nickname is Mission Impossible played by Eugenio Derbez.
This is actually one of the more confusing ways Girl in Progress deals with race. Grace needs money for the balance of Ansiedad's scholarship so while it makes sense that she'd take an extra job or two to make ends meet she's actually the housekeeper for Dr. Harford (Modine)'s family. Although Mission Impossible seems like he could be a good candidate for Grace there are some implausible plot developments that make him a rather unsuitable character.
Is the point here that it's more important for Grace to figure things out on her own? But then why when race isn't even spoken of in the movie would these odd details crop up? Girls can sniff out the most tender spot to attack in a weaker girl but the mean girls make fun of Ansiedad's clothes or Tavita's weight never their race. It doesn't quite add up and while I'd like to not make this a bigger deal than it is it seems odd that Girl in Progress would make race a non-issue in Ansiedad's world and then rely on tired clichés for Grace.
As for Mendes herself it's impossible to totally tone down her bombshell good looks but that also acts as a foil for Anseidad. The way Mendes is portrayed isn't particularly salacious or even shaming; she's just a damn good-looking woman with a young daughter who would prefer to be nothing like her. She's given more to do than in her usual roles but even when she's telling Ms. Armstrong all the reasons why she shouldn't judge her for her life choices it doesn't come across as particularly hard-hitting. The rote dialogue doesn't do anyone any favors.
Girl in Progress doesn't transgress or shock like Thirteen or other movies about the traumas of being a teen but that could be a good thing. Although it's not the hippest movie around town it is something that moms and daughters to watch together and talk about. It's also worth boosting a movie that doesn't rely on the same Hannah Montana clones to cast; the more that young girls can see themselves onscreen the better.
Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore) is a diamond-drenched pampered pooch who lives the high life in Beverly Hills. Beloved by her owner Aunt Viv (Jamie Lee Curtis) and adored by the landscaper’s Chihuahua Papi (George Lopez) she is left with a babysitter niece Rachel (Piper Perabo) when Viv takes off on vacation. Rachel impulsively departs on a last-minute weekend romp to Mexico with Chloe who not only gets lost south of the border but ends up in some very bad company. Saved from certain death in a dog fight she hooks up with a street-savvy German Shepherd (Andy Garcia) harboring a dark secret from his past life as a police dog. Along the way her diamond ID collar is swiped by a conniving rat (Cheech Marin) and his accomplice a very fidgety Iguana (Paul Rodriguez) leading to major chaos as all of them are pursued by the vicious El Diablo (Edward James Olmos) a Doberman out for revenge and one very disoriented Chihuahua. Will Rachel and Papi be able to find her in time before clueless Aunt Viv’s return? That’s the burning question. Basically a talking dog movie with a heavy Spanish accent Beverly Hills Chihuahua doesn’t exactly shy from stereotyped Mexicans but since this is a canine Babe it manages to get away with just about anything simply because these pooches are just so darned cute. The voice cast which features such Latino stars as George Lopez Edward James Olmos Paul Rodriguez Cheech Marin and Andy Garcia is perfectly cast lending a lot of fun to the proceedings especially Lopez as the lovably loyal Papi and Marin as a jewel-thief rat. Barrymore is also ideal as the ultra-rich and spoiled Chloe who is the equivalent of a canine Paris Hilton. The human actors are basically wallpaper with Curtis given little dimension in her relatively brief screen time and Perabo spending most of the film searching for the pup she carelessly misplaced. Manolo Cardona does nicely as the family gardener who helps out in the search. But it’s the remarkable real dog stars that steal this show. You have to wonder how their trainers led by Birds And Animals Unlimited’s Mike Alexander pulled some of this stuff off. These animals are more three-dimensional than most real thesps we’ve seen lately and actually do seem to be mouthing their lines (including some very clever dialogue). The old show-business adage says to never work with kids or animals--they take center stage everytime. In this case director Raja Gosnell and the group of talented trainers behind the cameras have proven the saying absolutely right. Dominating the breezy 86-minute time the bulk of the movie is devoted to stars of the four-legged variety and Gosnell makes it look easy with inventive camera angles giving us the POV of all the various dog stars who seem to be taking on the distinct personalities of the “characters” they are playing particularly the soulful down-and-out ex-police dog Garcia voices. You really do wonder what this dog’s deep dark secret is and the relationship forged between him and Chloe is genuinely real. It’s a tribute to Gosnell’s talents and the entire behind-the-scenes team that Beverly Hills Chihuahua turns out to be the family delight it is.
The heartbreak of illegal immigration is vividly displayed in this poignant story of nine year old Carlos (Adrian Alonso) a boy living in Mexico with his grandmother while his mother (Kate del Castillo) works as an illegal domestic in Los Angeles trying to make enough money to send home so the son she has been separated from can live a good life--even if it means being without her. When the grandmother suddenly dies Carlos decides to cross the border and look for mom. As his journey continues he encounters a woman (America Ferrera) and her brother (Jesse Garcia) who make tuition money taking babies into the U.S. In this instance she decides to help smuggle Carlos across by hiding him in her van. Once he lands in Tuscon he meets a sympathetic middle- aged migrant worker named Enrique (Eugenio Derbez) who accompanies him to East L.A. Once there they try to locate his mother--their only clue being a vague description of the area around a pay phone she used in her weekly calls home to Carlos. The film which is shot mostly in Spanish with some English language scenes as well offers great big screen opportunities to some of Mexico’s biggest television stars including telenovela favorite Kate del Castillo. She delivers a moving performance as a mother living separated by borders with her only son but living “under the same moon.” The film really belongs however to young Alonso--a natural in front of the cameras who impressed American audiences as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas’ son in The Legend of Zorro but breaks out here as the determined Carlos. Both create a touching mother-son relationship even though they are never in any scenes together. Also playing against type is superstar Derbez unquestionably one of Latin America’s most popular actors who develops a winning chemistry with Alonso making every moment of their screen time count. Ugly Betty’s Ferrera also turns up for some effective moments including a heart-stopping sequence in which she is questioned by border guards while the van carrying the hidden Carlos is searched. Although she has made some award winning shorts Under the Same Moon represents the first feature length film for Mexican-born Patricia Riggen. She succeeds on all levels emphasizing the characters in the story over the potentially political hot button topic of immigration which her film so eloquently humanizes. Working with screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos the two women give urgency to the tragic separation of mother and son caught between two disparate cultures. Given the time restraints and low budget Riggen’s command of the camera is impressive particularly in the inventive and almost spiritual ways she manages to bring mother and son together on screen even though they never share a shot. Use of music is also hugely effective with Carlos Silotto’s melodic score recalling a similar film about a young dreamer Cinema Paradiso. Ultimately though Under the Same Moon lives or dies with the actors and Riggen’ spot-on casting decisions--particularly in the case of Alonso--really lift it to new levels. Most of the actors have extensive TV followings and Riggen knew by casting them she would risk the wrath of Mexican film critics who uniformly look down on television. Doesn’t matter. Under the Same Moon has universal appeal and should find approving audiences around the world.