Published Oct 07, 2020Yellow Rose — one of the first movies with a Filipina director to be released domestically with Hollywood studio backing — will mightily defy every preconception you'll have of it going in. It's not a whiskey-laced country music movie like Crazy Heart, and it's not a meandering coming-of-age story, either. It's complex but also politically powerful, like a punch to the nose. What this film delivers to viewers in 90 minutes is a breathtaking tale of hope that, instead of glistening through a neat veneer of optimism, is set firmly in reality. Condemnatory of the way things are, Yellow Rose will challenge you in a visceral way.
Diane Paragas, who has a background in writing and directing documentaries (she co-directed Brooklyn Boheme), wrote, directed and produced Yellow Rose. The film follows 17-year-old Rose (Eva Nobelzada), who lives with protective mother Priscilla (Princess Punzalan) in a motel in Texas where Priscilla works. Both are undocumented immigrants and Texas is home — crucially so for Rose, because the U.S. is the only place she's ever known. The film follows Rose as she embarks upon her dream of being a country singer in face of her mother's impending deportation, finding herself in the position of making decisions that most teenagers couldn't even fathom.
There's a certain Babel-esque route this movie could've taken in being hopelessly grim, which would have held up a mirror to the way that things are in reality, without too much thematic artifice. But Yellow Rose is infused with a sunny kindness that we so desperately need from movies and real life. In its depictions of ICE's behaviour and detention centres, the movie is very frank in its violence, but this realism is counterbalanced by Rose's hope for her future — the same hope that carried her parents to the U.S., and the kindness that strangers show her. "There's more opportunity here," Prescilla tells Rose early in the film. "It'll be better for you, I promise."
This careful straddling of hopeful optimism and grim reality seen in the narrative is also mirrored in Rose's complex character. Rose contains multitudes. She loves her mother, but she also loves music. We see her letting loose and having fun with a boy and then we see her screaming as her mother is taken away. We see Rose as she's playful and wily, but also as she's wailing in frustration at her circumstances. Both this movie and the character of Rose contain a humanity (our fallible want for infallibility) that Paragas depicts so delicately.
Nobelzada is wonderful to watch as a teenager in impossibly real circumstances, expressing emotion through her body in the way that teenagers do. Nobelzada skillfully depicts Rose's frailty commingled with resilience, allowing the audience to feel Rose's pain even though we might never fully understand her situation. Meanwhile, Punzalan is convincingly familiar as the protective mother.
And then there's real-life country singer Dale Watson, playing Jimmy Redburn. He becomes Rose's mentor of sorts, showing her how to write impactful songs. Rose has had no professional training as a musician. Until she meets Jimmy, she's a self-taught country nerd containing nothing but a steely passion, writing songs based off nice-sounding words. But Jimmy teaches Rose how to let the music flow, and what this flow looks like: he tells her the stories that lyrics can contain, and ultimately how salutary music is. He actually gives useful advice — not pompous or self-aggrandizing, it's one of the best mentoring scenes I've seen.
This film has so much that goes on in it and it carries itself in such a brilliant way, you wonder how it could only be and hour and a half long. Underscored by a beautiful soundtrack, Yellow Rose is topical and brutal in its depiction of ICE's treatment of undocumented immigrants, wholesome in showing the importance of family ties, and inspirational in depicting the measurable way in which support from loved ones helps to carry us to our dreams. Yellow Rose tells a unique and important story, and it does so with a deftness that Paragas shows only she could have mastered. (Sony)