Director: Miriam Kruishoop
Writer: Miriam Kruishoop
Cast: Lidia Porto, Antonio Jaramillo, Zuleyka Silver, Lombardo Boyar, Goya Robles
Running time: 22mins
The world is perhaps more globalised than ever before. People and products routinely move between countries and cultures intermingle. Yet simultaneously there’s a rise in nationalism, in seeking to draw distinctions between ‘the citizen,’ ‘the expat,’ ‘the migrant,’ and, in some benighted minds, ‘the illegal immigrant’ or ‘undocumented alien.’ Border controls are becoming more stringent and inhumane, driven by politicians seeking the reactionary vote. As anyone who appears to be in any way an outsider is increasingly viewed with suspicion, there’s a premium on ‘fitting in.’
Estilo Americano (American Style) opens with a series of establishing shots that couldn’t be more American – a spacious suburban home with a swimming pool, a Ford pickup on the drive and a star-spangled banner flying over the porch. But, as we might have expected from the film’s title, the first words we hear are spoken in Spanish. We move indoors, to the dining room that will be the sole location. A family is gathering for a Thanksgiving dinner but the food is unapologetically Mexican and the conversation flows seamlessly between English and Spanish.
We’re in a liminal zone, a tide margin between two worlds. It’s a dynamic space and every character present has their own way of navigating it. There’s tension and a palpable uncomfortableness from the outset. Leon, the one outsider to the family as a new boyfriend of younger daughter Veronica, nearly sits in the wrong place. He’s Black, and from Puerto Rico. However, his ability to speak Spanish quickly ingratiates him to matriarch Elena. Youngest child Danny, “the artist,” is late, predictably. Worse than that, he’s vegan and, according to older daughter Bianca, “follows his passion but doesn’t make a dime.” Raul, who at 45 is the oldest child, just wants to start eating.
With Danny finally present, Dad Joachim says grace and the pause in conversation allows the off-screen noise of a TV to leak into our hearing. It’s the unmistakeable voice of Donald Trump. “Can we please turn that off?” asks Veronica, irritably. “I don’t want the Carrot Demon to ruin our meal.” She follows this by declaring, “Can’t wait for him to go to jail…” but Bianca quickly responds, “Not gonna happen. His base is getting stronger.” The fault line in the family is exposed.
What follows is an escalating discussion / argument that touches the core of this dual-heritage family’s identity. Is Bianca a ‘better American’ for being a Republican? Can Veronica be a true American while identifying as “Latinx”? Does Raul’s former military service make him the shining light or do his subsequent life struggles render him less valuable? Where does Leon stand, his Puerto Rican birth conferring instant US citizenship but no voting rights? Danny has a vote but doesn’t want to use it. Miguel, who’s clearly into his politics, wants to keep the discussion going, even though his parents begin to become upset by it. Eventually Joachim snaps and decides the time has come for all his family to know the truth.
Writer-director Miriam Kruishoop wisely confines the action to the dining table and David J. Frederick’s black and white cinematography helps build a claustrophobic sense of increasing pressure. The highly experienced cast deals well with dialogue that just about remains believable, even as it tries to cram in perhaps rather too many talking points. “Is this a TED talk?” quips Bianca during one of Miguel’s more expository declamations. But it’s the unspoken communication that the actors convey best. The awkward pauses, accusing glances and resigned sighs all speak volumes and repay repeat viewing.
What could have been a lumpen exercise in polemical filmsplaining is elevated into a genuinely affecting exploration of what feels like a simultaneously specific yet universal experience. The enduring importance of family is one of cinema’s most frequently travelled roads but this is a worthy addition to the convoy.