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We are Family

By Guest Critic Twig Collins | Underappreciated Gems | June 17, 2009 |

By Guest Critic Twig Collins | Underappreciated Gems | June 17, 2009 |

You can put Steal Big, Steal Little pretty high up on the list of movies that should have never snuck past the gatekeepers of mediocrity. Somehow they managed, and we’re the better for it. Maybe you veteran Pajibans have seen a dozen movies like this, but to me it all feels very fresh and vibrant, a story that manages heart and warmth without falling into tired cliches or weak storylines. I usually go back and watch this movie once every couple of years, and each time I’m impressed by how much I enjoy it, a feel-good movie that actually makes me feel good. Not that I can tell you where I found it the first time; much like Empire Records it just turned up in my life one day, and I haven’t stopped recommending it since.

The main conflict of the film concerns the constant, back-and-forth fight between twin brothers, both adeptly played by Andy Garcia, who were adopted by a wealthy dancer and her husband after they were found living in a drainage ditch, lost during their parents’ attempt to cross the border into the U.S. The history of the family, and the eventual schism between husband and wife, brother and brother, is told deftly and effectively, without much in the way of melodrama.

Ruben Martinez, who sides with his mother after the split, is a kind-hearted, warm and generous man, devoted to the people he works with and the land that they share, all a part of his mother’s extensive assets. Robbie Martin, his brother, followed their father into business, greed, and dirty dealings. The two brothers come into conflict when Ruben is given the money and property that Robbie believes he deserves, along with the land that holds the key to all his future business prospects. Ruben is kind but immature, inevitably making the bad decisions good-hearted people make, open and trusting to a fault, and when Robbie takes advantage of this, the film becomes a pitched battle between the brothers, not only for property and assets, but for the chance at reconciliation.

Issues of time and backstory are dealt with quite well, establishing all of Ruben and Robbie’s relationships, including subplots with both of their estranged families, with ease. The camera work is understated but effective, with some superb musical cues throughout. I absolutely love seeing movies filled with mostly ‘unknowns,’ all of whom do a tremendous job here, with the more familiar figures of Alan Arkin and Joe Pantoliano bringing especially fun and vivid characters to the table. I’ve been a fan of Joe Pantoliano since he traded banter with Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, and it’s always nice to see him in a film.

If I’d written this review a few years ago, I might have to complain that the good vs. evil plot of developers against farmers seems a bit one-sided, but then there was this thing with some subprime loans and whatever — maybe you heard about it? So I don’t really take the idea of rich people scheming for more money to be all that improbable. The film also takes a fairly nonjudgemental view of illegal immigration as a simple fact, Ruben’s own background and his determination to help people leading to a somewhat non-traditional ‘family’ of varying legal status, all of them tight-knit, all working to help each other. It was this sense of family and togetherness that I found the most charming and engaging aspect of the movie. People coming together in joy, and staying together when times get tough. Ruben determined to do what is right and pass that message along to the next generation:

“What do we do when we have things? We share.”

It sounds corny, but it’s very sweet. The entire movie is extremely sweet, and warm, and very funny in places. It’s unique, a story with a big heart that isn’t laughably trite, a rather large ensemble cast that never feels overstuffed, and just wonderful from start to finish.

Twig Collins is required to watch one movie per year that is less than 97 percent CGI, just to maintain some sort of balance.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.