(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Isabel Castro
Programme: NEXT (World Premiere)
Moments of utter devastation and sky-scraping joy coexist in a delicate balance in Isabel Castro’s breath-taking first documentary feature, Mija in the same bittersweet way they do in real life. The film follows Doris Muñoz, a daughter of Mexican immigrants thrust into the big leagues as a music manager, as she hangs her family’s future on a precarious creative industry.
Mija tells a new kind of immigration story, narrowing in on the experiences and expectations of Mexican immigrant daughters in the United States. It’s about the girls who dare to become artists when their families’ sacrifices rest solely on their backs, waiting for a return on investment. In betting on themselves, they place their families’ bets too. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants herself, Castro’s Mija – meaning ‘my daughter’ in Spanish – is by and for these young women.
When the film first introduces Muñoz’s life, it feels dream-like. She’s in a colourful shop painstakingly picking out birthday decorations. The nearly 26-year-old followed a gut feeling into managing a young Latino singer who soon skyrocketed into fame, bringing her along for the ride. Cuco sings to packed crowds with saucer-eyed young Latina girls hypnotised in the front row while Muñoz runs around behind the scenes. For the first time in her life, her family doesn’t have to worry about money.
The cracks soon begin to show. At a Thanksgiving dinner overflowing with love, Muñoz’s mom packs an extra plate to go. Muñoz’s older brother, José, was deported a few years ago and now lives just across the border in Tijuana. It is a close yet painfully impermeable barrier for her parents in California, who can’t cross the border as undocumented immigrants. Muñoz ferries Thanksgiving leftovers, extra money, and love to Mexico for her brother.
As they stand on the beach together, José watches a flock of birds with a tinge of jealousy. “Those birds right there immigrate from Canada to here, Baja, every summer.”
Their parents haven’t seen José in over four years. The weight of Muñoz’s daughterly responsibilities is palpable. As the only member of her family born in the United States, she holds the power to one day sponsor her parents to freedom. Now that she has the resources to do so, it’s only a matter of time and luck. Just as the pandemic hits, the superstar singer she manages fires her.
Blindsided and burdened with being the breadwinner of her family at large, Muñoz has no time to mourn her old life and the security that came with it. Remarkably soon after her firing, she discovers a Kali Uchis-esque young singer, Jacks Haupt. Haupt is also a daughter of Mexican immigrants with the world both at her feet and on her shoulders. Although Muñoz had only managed one artist before, she throws herself into shaping Haupt into a star. She doesn’t have much of a choice.
Mija is a story about the dreamers who truly live up to their namesake. It has an ethereal visual quality due to its setting in a Los Angeles smeared with vivid colours. Muñoz whisks Haupt out of her hometown of Dallas and off to record in La Land, where she dons vampire teeth for a photoshoot set against blood red velvet curtains while churning out crooning songs.
It’s a dream come true. If Haupt ‘makes it,’ she can finally return her parents’ favour, as Muñoz now has. Muñoz’s parents sob as they open the letters with their green cards slowly and with shaky hands, as she impatiently cheers them on over Facetime. They can travel to Mexico for the first time in over 30 years. While it feels thrilling and is a win for them, it also feels like a loss. The Muñoz family muscled success out of a system that doesn’t blink at their tears and has spat out many families just like theirs.
The film recovers from moments of heaviness with Castro’s knowing directorial touch. Muñoz’s meditative voiceover stitches together sweet and sombre scenes with a reflectiveness that makes it all feel cohesive. Home video tapes of Muñoz as a toddler instill both a sense of pride in her adult accomplishments and a feeling of injustice that a little girl was forced to deal with such responsibilities. Mija’s beauty is born of its ability to contain multitudes.