José (Li Cheng, 2018): Guatemala | USA

Reviewed by Shayne Casso-Cloonan at the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

As seen at the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the 2018 film José covers the basic conflicts between right and wrong, good and bad, accepted and forbidden, etc. As a beautifully executed film, José left the audience in awe, almost wanting to know more about the lead character José, portrayed by first-time on-camera actor Enrique Salanic, but at the same time embracing where life has left him.

At the beginning of the film it is early in the morning, and José and his mother are getting ready to go off to work. His mother makes money by selling sandwiches off of the side of the street and José works for a restaurant by running around outside in the middle of the street in a sort of hysterics, trying to get people in their cars to order food. He seems to have a great excitement rush over him as he receives text messages from Luis, played by Manolo Herrera, whom he has been secretly meeting with. When Luis asks José to run away with him so that they can be together, José becomes nervous about the possibility of leaving his mother alone, as she often relies on him to cover basic living expenses. Although they are obviously in love with each other, José and Luis are faced with a decision that could change the course of their relationship.

Finding inspiration by interviewing over 100 young men throughout South and Central America, writer and director Li Cheng gracefully acknowledges that people South of the United States boarder have hopes and dreams just like anyone else. In this realistic tale of a young indigenous man from Guatemala we get a small peak into the life of someone suspended between the concern for his mother’s well-being and his ability to be true to himself. With scenes of growth and destruction, involving earthquakes, physical violence, and text messages, this film brings up the universal feelings of love and intimacy, guiding the audience through the daily life of someone trying to survive the difficulties and hardships of Guatemala’s modern-day society.

Overall, this film creates a certain harmony between the audience and the lead characters through medium shots or close-ups as their emotions become so familiar that we start to feel the same way. Although not realistic in terms of its cinematography, the story itself brings up an understanding that can be met by anyone, and holds accountable the idea of “love; expecting nothing in return.” A wonderful film that I would highly recommend to anyone, especially to those that display great ignorance towards people that don’t look the same as they do.

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