Who Knew Unitards Were Such a Nightmare?
Luz Garcia (Corina Calderon) can only hope of getting out of Benavides, Texas by going to the University of Texas at Austin. She's already been accepted and has good grades, but has not been able to pull any academic scholarships. Her family can't afford to take on the debt of college loans, already carrying other debt while also trying to deal with her pregnant sister's medical bills. So Luz, a competitive weightlifter, hopes to win the state powerlifting championship, her one shot at a scholaraship (because competitive weightlifting is not a college varsity sport, colleges can't give out scholarships for the sport and only the state can dole them out through the statewide competition). So Luz trains, hard. Like any competitive sport, competitive weightlifting is no joke, from surprisingly difficult and uncomfortable unitards, to struggles to stay within your weight class ("you can lose two pounds in a day" ... really? please teach me how), to the need to ever increase the amount of bench and lifting weight.
The film follows Luz preparing for and competing in the regional competition, where a competitor's mind-games and her own stubborness cost her the victory. Lux manages to eke her way into advancing to States anyway and, at this point, the movie appears to be your standard highschool sports film, complete with a montage almost exactly at the middle-point. But the film has different aspirations, so it veers off in the second-half. It's unfortunate, because the first half of the film was working well. And there's certainly nothing wrong with trying to turn the general sports film mold into something else -- Sugar is a fantastic film precisely because of how it unexpectedly veered away from the intimate view of baseball it began with. But the problem with Benavides Born is that it's not exactly clear where the film is going, or what it's trying to do, and so it ends up being unaffecting.
And that's a shame, because there are things in the film that work. The Garcia family is not played for stereotypes, but is an earnest and likeable multi-generational Mexican-American family doing its best to get by. Luz's mother (Leticia Magaña) and sister (Amanda Rivas), in particular, are well written roles that don't resort to becoming stereotypical "harpies," even when Luz gets more rebellious and difficult. In fact, the film actually does a solid job of defying stereotypes with most of its characters. I wholly expected Luz's brother-in-law (Joseph Julian Soria), who works at the local oil rig, to show himself to be an asshole, because that's what the husband of pregnant women in stories like this often are. But he remains a likeable and upstanding character. Similarly, Luz's boyfriend Raynaldo (Jeremy Ray Valdez) initially appears to be an unsupportive horndog, but steps up and takes a pretty big metaphorical bullet for Luz.
Most of the performances in the film are also on the better side (the only real weak spots are Valdez, and Jaime Medeles as Luz's brother) and Calderon is particularly good. She's given an interesting and complicated female protagonist and does some good work with the character's anger and frustration. But the problem with the film is, again, that it's unclear what it wants to do. At times, it seems to want to comment on the irony of Luz desperately wanting out of rural Southern Texas, while illegal Mexican immigrants desperatly want in. It also touches on the idea of the family uniting to help Luz get out of town, on how a good life can be made even if stuck in this small town, and the pros and cons of using the Army as a way out. But it never explores any of these in more than passing. At the end, the film seems content to relay the message that "you always have to have a dream," which is fine. But Luz's dream had already been taken away from her and the film opts for an uplifting ending, failing to fully explore the results of her lost dream and, instead, giving Luz hope back in an unhonest and disappointing manner.
Early on in the viewing, I had hopes that Benavides Born was going to be a lovely sister to Friday Night Lights. That, it is not. But it's not a bad film either, it's just a disappointing and frustrating one because it had the potential to be one of several different types of good movies had it not taken on too much weight.
Benavides Born screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
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