At what point is the American dream no longer worth chasing? The toil involved in trying to build a better life is examined by both Fruits of Labor and Ludi, two films that are seemingly dissimilar. The former is a documentary about a Mexican-American teenager picking strawberries in small-town California. It follows her as she struggles to complete her senior year of high school while supporting her family and helping her undocumented mother evade ICE. The latter is a narrative feature about a Haitian-American woman working as a health care aide in Miami, supporting her cousin and goddaughter back in Haiti and trying to make as much as money as she can to send back.
These central characters, Ashley in Fruits of Labor and Ludi in the same-named film, are different ethnicities, different ages, and live in different parts of the United States. Yet, they’re united by a common interest in how far we’ll push ourselves for that elusive, improved tomorrow. Their stories are initially intriguing. Unfortunately, both films sink into slightly anticlimactic endings that don’t provide these women with the full portraits they deserve.
Filmmaker Emily Cohen Ibañez’s Fruits of Labor is mostly told from the perspective of high schooler Ashley Solis, who lives in Fresaville, California, in an overpacked house with her three siblings, her mother, and 11 other families—all sharing one bathroom. As the oldest daughter, Ashley is used to caring for her siblings while her mother Beatriz, who is undocumented, works every single day cleaning houses. Once Ashley was old enough, she began working as a picker in the strawberry fields. The film begins with this: her body hunched over the low-growing plants, her fingers reaching in between the lush leaves to find and pick the ripe fruit, her feet shuffling along the very narrow rows left between each line of plants, and her back bent under the weight of her full bag of picked produce. It is tedious, agonizing work that Ashley does for hours a day in the hot sunlight. Then at night, she pulls 8-hour shifts at a frozen strawberry processing facility, where she stands at an assembly line with other mostly female workers and double checks the fruit before it is packaged.
“My body stinks of strawberries and work,” Ashley admits by voiceover, and this has been Ashley’s life for years. As one of her high school teachers explains, agriculture exceptions in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal allowed for children as young as 12 years old to work unlimited hours because they remain unprotected by labor laws. Many of Ashley’s classmates know this firsthand, too. But how is Ashley supposed to be a “normal” high schooler with all this responsibility? Her mother hopes Ashley will graduate, but also asks her to keep working so they can pay their bills. Her 15-year-old brother has been promising for years that he’ll work in the fields, but never has. Instead, he’s perfectly comfortable asking Ashley if he can borrow some money to buy a new gaming system and new sneakers. On her birthday. “I have to financially support him and his future family because I’m the one that makes money,” Ashley says in a tone of resigned frustration when her brother shares that his girlfriend is pregnant. This is about the millionth time Fruits of Labor will make you want to scream.
With so many missed days on her attendance record and with so much homework undone, will Ashley be able to graduate? And if she does, without enough money to afford yearbook photos or a prom outfit, will she be able to experience the typical rites of passage that so many other high school students are able to? The main tension of Fruits of Labor comes from these concerns, which Ashley shares with simultaneously agonizing and courageous honesty.
But even at only 78 minutes, Fruits of Labor has some noticeable filler. In particular, there are abstract scenes that mirror elements of Ashley’s story: time lapses of a strawberry ripening from green to red, a flower blooming from a bud, and butterflies emerging from cocoons. In some brief scenes Ashley is shown in a dark room, with light illuminating only her as she stares into the camera. These moments are evocative and impactful the first time. But by the fourth or fifth time we cut to a scene of butterflies fluttering around a dark room, you’ll wonder what is happening in Ashley’s life that we aren’t seeing, and frustratingly, there’s a lot! Fruits of Labor spends nearly its entire run time suggesting that Ashley won’t graduate and that she’ll be forced to support her ne’er-do-well brother. Then, in the last 5 minutes or so, suddenly Ashley has turned her academic performance around. Not only does it seem as if there is time missing from the documentary, but as a result, we’re denied watching Ashley take further control of her own story. There are so many moments of Ashley despondent and downtrodden that the one or two in which she’s proud of herself (after doing well on a school project, or earning enough to afford her prom dress) feel disconnected. How did Ashley reposition herself, and why didn’t Fruits of Labor show that?
What Fruits of Labor can’t seem to decide—and neither can Ludi—is whether its focus is struggle or success. I don’t say this to suggest that either film would have been improved somehow by a less “happy” ending. Happy endings can be fine and well and good! But skipping the necessary steps to get there saps stories of emotional investment. Endings that seem incongruous compared with the preceding events don’t offer much fulfillment. Fruits of Labor and Ludi make the same mistake.
In filmmaker Edson Jean’s Ludi, Haitian-American Ludi (Shein Mompremier) moved to the United States when she was 10 years old. Now, she’s a 30-something living in Miami in a cramped room rented from a Latina fellow nurse. She still has family left in Haiti, in particular a cousin and goddaughter with whom she trades recorded cassette tapes through the mail. In their latest communication, Ludi’s goddaughter asks for a new dress for her graduation. It’s an expense that Ludi absolutely cannot afford, but that she basically talks herself into. In her first recording, Ludi admits, “I’m still chasing a better life, but in this country, it looks like I’ll die before I reach it.” Immediately regretting this message, she rewinds and records over it, telling her cousin, “If I can pick up a few shifts at work, I’ll send a little money for the dress.” What is she working so hard for, if not her family?
But Ludi is already spread thin. Her landlord keeps asking her to do favors she doesn’t want to do. Ludi works 60 hours per week at her nursing home job, but she’s fighting other employees for overtime because the paychecks aren’t that great. Intent on securing the extra cash for that dress, Ludi decides to break the rules of her employer and secretly take an additional in-home care gig. It pays far better. The hours are fewer, and all Ludi has to do is keep the patient, a man with dementia named George (Alan Myles Heyman), calm, clean, and content for 7 or so hours until the next nurse arrives at midnight.
George, however, is the kind of nightmare patient who makes Ludi wonder how much her time and her energy are really worth. He demands to know who hired Ludi. He accuses her of being in cahoots with his children. He does that whole “where are you from?” questioning thing. He complains about Miami “going downhill” since he moved there from Israel. And, in a staggering moment of cruelty and abuse, he does something to Ludi that the film ultimately and unconscionably uses as a stepping stone into a bonding moment. For most of its run time, Ludi probes at the edges of the “Good Immigrant” definition, honing in on Ludi’s frustration with fellow Haitian expats who want her to be more religious, more feminine, or more interested in snagging a husband. So to have a closing sequence in which a moment of humiliation gives way to an opportunity for reconciliation almost feels like a surrender for the film, as if the film decided Ludi needed to be punished for her overwhelming ambition. “I still have hope … I won’t put unnecessary pressure on myself anymore,” Ludi says—in what the film tries to present as a triumphant, self-aware ending. But just like the rushed conclusion of Fruits of Labor, Ludi doesn’t actually show us the work these characters are doing to make those statements true.
At one point in Fruits of Labor, a school administrator congratulating some of Ashley’s fellow classmates on their athletic success says, “If you work hard, you can get your dreams.” You almost want Ashley to roll her eyes at a statement like that, but that’s not the young woman’s style. How defeated she looks will instead break your heart.
To the credit of both Fruits of Labor and Ludi, they explore areas of the American working class that often aren’t portrayed on the big screen. And they do so by centering female experiences and perspectives like Ashley’s and Ludi’s. Both agriculture and health care are fields increasingly populated by immigrant workers: There are more than 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S., according to the National Center for Farmworker Health, many of whom are fruit and nut pickers. Similarly, according to the immigration advocacy group New American Economy, there are 2.8 million heath care workers in the U.S., including doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, who are foreign-born, representing 16.4% of all workers in the industry. Included in those statistics are women similar to Ashley and Ludi, who have made immeasurable sacrifices to try and grasp the American dream. It’s a disappointment that Fruits of Labor and Ludi don’t seem to tell their entire stories, but at least they’re being told at all.
Ludi had its Texas Premiere at at SXSW Online 2021. Fruits of Labor had its World Premiere at SXSW Online 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): SXSW, SXSW