América review – moving portrait of grandsons' love for their grandmother

This affectionate documentary follows three brothers in Mexico as they care for their 93-year-old grandmother

This soulful debut feature-length documentary from American directing duo Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside centres on three brothers in Colima, Mexico, whose lives revolve around their 93-year-old grandmother, América. Shot over a three-year period with an affectionate, watchful eye, it blows up an intimate family portrait on to a large, cinematic canvas.

As the film’s voiceover explains, Luis Alvarez Serrano (father to brothers Rodriguez, Bruno and Diego) was his mother’s sole caretaker until a sticky misunderstanding meant that he was charged with negligence and put in prison. Alvarez Serrano Sr had popped out to run some errands – but the neighbours reported him to the police after hearing América’s cries for help after she fell from her bed. In his absence, his sons were forced to rally round. The sleazy legal battle surrounding his imprisonment is a subplot, but the looming shadow of intervening officials signals the filmmakers’ keen-eyed interest in the politics of police corruption (“Thanks to God for living in a corrupt country!” deadpans eldest brother Rodriguez over a bag of freshly fried churros).

Mostly though, this is a sunny hangout movie with a gentle rhythm that suits its slight, 76-minute running time. The film tracks the brothers’ daily routines as they prepare América’s meals and help her to shower (an activity frequently met with resistance, and shown to be quite the ordeal), accompanying her on short strolls and taking it in turns to sleep on a mattress on the floor of her room. No caretaking task is too tough; even an at-home enema is framed as a kind of tender intervention. Stoll and Whiteside make it clear from the outset América will not live out her remaining days in a home. Not in this family (or in this specific cultural context).

Despite her papery skin and fragile frame, América is no shrinking violet. “You’re a star,” Diego tells her, gesturing to the camera in the room. “A startled star,” she quips, not missing a beat. Indeed, star quality seems to run in the family – when not looking after their grandmother, the brothers themselves are a handsome trio of street entertainers. They cavort about on unicycles, perform Bee Gees covers in Elvis costumes (on stilts!), and juggle, practising circus tricks in their back garden and climbing each other’s shoulders to form a wobbling human tower. Though these are grown men, these born performers share a boyish charm.

Of the three, Bruno is the least patient, badgering her to try harder to walk by herself, and shouting when she leans forward, afraid that she might fall. Still, there’s a bracing honesty in his refusal to talk to América like she’s an idiot – his frustration translates as a sign of respect. Diego, on the other hand, is the soft centre of the film. With a strange, handsome face that recalls the actor Adam Driver’s in its appealing oddness, he shows himself to be the most casually devoted of América’s caretakers, frequently showering her with kisses, singing songs with her and showing her old family photographs. Though she’s forgetful after the fall, he’s the first to defend her mental lucidity.

For Diego (and later, Bruno), América is the very thing that brings him home to Colima, from Puerto Vallarta, a resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Stoll and Whiteside show the brothers leaving the carefree lives they’ve built away from their sleepy hometown, working as surf instructors and in touristy gift shops, flirting with girls on the beach and barrelling down the pier at sunset. Yet though there is a wistful sense of something sacrificed, the filmmakers are careful not to temper this reflectiveness with regret. This is emphasised in the film’s gut-punch of a closing scene. Set “two years later”, we see Diego and Bruno in the back seat of a car, clutching something close to their chests, somewhere between laughter and tears. There is no remorse, just love.


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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