Movie Curiosities: Mother of Color
We got us another indie movie set and shot in Portland, which means it’s time to open up another review with a disclosure.
Mother of Color was first brought to my attention by producer Ashley Song, an acquaintance of mine in the local theatre community. Only upon seeing the film did I notice a handful of friends and acquaintances among the bit parts. While I was not directly invited to review the film, I was happy to buy a ticket for a hometown screening at Cinema 21 as the film goes on to a festival tour.
And I really was happy I bought a ticket, because this truly is an impressive piece of work.
The film was written and directed by local short filmmaker Dawn Jones Redstone, who also contributed some B-roll footage for the massively underrated must-see Portland cinema instant classic Leave No Trace. That said, Mother of Color is actually a semi-biographical work on the subject of producer Ana del Rocio, built from her experiences as a single mother raising two children while working in the non-profit sector. In point of fact, del Rocio is currently running for elected office on the Multnomah County Commission, but I digress.
del Rocio plays Noelia Ruiz, a Latina immigrant single mother struggling to raise two especially demanding young boys (Marco and Mau, respectively played by Julian Hernandez and Kasey Tinoco) while holding down an underpaying job with a local nonprofit. In point of fact, the movie opens with Noelia getting her notice because A) her boss thinks she’s losing too much time shuttling her kids between overcrowded daycare centers, and B) the token Latina woman in this non-profit for BIPOC community engagement keeps speaking out of turn.
Oh, and did I mention the recurring tinnitus? Because Noelia’s got a chronic medical condition on top of everything else.
The point being that Noelia is a well-intentioned hard-working single mother badly in need of a break. And it looks as if her luck might’ve finally changed when she gets a last-minute chance to interview with a job for Portland City Commissioner Jordan (Jo Ann Hardesty, an actual former Portland City Commissioner, briefly and gamely playing a fictionalized version of herself).
Thus Noelia has to spend the entire next day juggling her work life and her family life, trying to coordinate transportation for herself and her kids so she can hold down her current job and make the interview for the next one. And she’s doing all of this on less than twelve hours’ notice. So she barely has a Plan A, never mind a Plan B for when things inevitably go wrong. Hilarity ensues.
This entire movie was built from the ground up with the clear intention of showing the struggles that working poor single mothers go through on a daily basis. The constant struggles of loading and carrying and keeping track of strollers and car seats. The struggle to find affordable and efficient means of transportation. The difficulty in finding a daycare center that’s affordable, conveniently located, and not overcrowded with too many other kids. And that’s just when things are going right — if the kid gets sick or injured or gets in trouble and needs immediate parental attention, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.
I get how this might sound like a dull and uninteresting movie that nobody would want to see because it’s such a mundane topic that millions of people already go through every day, but that’s very much the point. Indeed, the filmmakers go extremely far out of their way to demonstrate the stigma surrounding single mothers, particularly about the louder and messier and less convenient and more painful parts of parenting that “polite society” would rather not see or talk about. As such, it makes a huge difference that the filmmakers are showing all of this in such uncompromising detail with the clear intention of starting a discussion about helping single parents be productive members of society and raise the next generation of upstanding citizens. Because more of them are out there than any of us would like to admit.
Hell, that’s not even getting started on the racist or classist aspect. Modern society was built specifically for dual-income households, thus everyone looks down on Noelia and shames her for not providing a stable enough household to raise her children. And that’s not just coming from white racists, either — even Noelia’s own mother (Elena, played by Patricia Alvitez) gives her shit like it’s her fault she didn’t want to keep her asshole baby daddy around to be a toxic influence on the kids.
Oh, and we also get the bit about how Noelia has to ask her friends and neighbors to come pick up the boys. Thus the teachers at school take issue with all the strange unkempt brown people coming around to pick up Noelia’s kids as if these potentially dangerous natty-haired interlopers are an inherent threat. Probably my favorite example of systemic racism in the whole movie, it’s just so perfectly insidious.
I’d be remiss not to add that the film is set in downtown Portland. Post-COVID. After George Floyd. Thus numerous scenes are shot against the backdrop of boarded-up buildings and there are numerous “Black Lives Matter” protests marching in the background. It certainly goes a long way toward sending the message that this is an overtly political movie about race.
Which brings me to the immigrant angle. The filmmakers directly address the “love it or leave it” talking point, arguing that there is in fact a third option: Building a better home. It’s a long and painful process, but even the most powerless among us has the option of making the world a better place in some small way. More than anything else, that optimism is the foundation for everything Noelia does in her work life and her family life. It’s yet another reason why the character is so compelling to root for.
But then we have the visions. To clarify, there comes a point early in the story when it’s implied that Noelia’s tinnitus might actually be the spirits of her ancestors attempting to contact her. I have so many mixed feelings about this.
To start with, the visions themselves look fantastic. They’re nicely trippy and distinctly iconic without ever looking cheap or hokey — a respectable accomplishment, especially for a no-budget indie. An unfortunate downside is that each dream sequence results in a massive tonal shift that doesn’t quite match the overall grounded and mundane narrative. It certainly doesn’t help that the visions are mostly introduced by way of Che (Luz Elena Mendoza), who’s given so little screen time or definition beyond a broad hippie stereotype that she registers more as a plot device than an actual person.
The other big problem is that the visions themselves are extremely vague by nature. It’s hard to pin down a coherent statement or a specific function behind them. Then again, I worry that if the visions were clear-cut in their definitions and statements and functions, they’d come dangerously close to deus ex machina territory. Moreover, the dream sequences are vague in such a way that they could plausibly work on multiple levels and various interpretations.
As best I can tell, the visions work as a needed respite from the fast-paced materialistic pressures of the outside world. In fact, the dream sequences serve a necessary purpose in that they literally and directly force Noelia — and thus the plot — to stop and take a breath every once in a while. Perhaps most importantly, the visions serve to remind Noelia of who she is, where she came from, why she’s going through all of this, and what really matters.
There’s this line from “Babylon 5” that I think about quite frequently —
We have to make people lift their eyes back to the horizon, and see the line of ancestors behind us, saying, “Make my life have meaning.” And to our inheritors before us, saying, “Create the world we will live in.”
That’s pretty much the best way I can describe what these dream sequences look like and what they ultimately mean. It looks and sounds exactly as if Noelia is at once confronting her ancestors — the ones calling for her to remember her roots and heal the racial trauma of her heritage — while also confronting her children and all the unborn descendants she’s so deeply obligated towards. It’s a frankly ingenious and visually compelling approach to an immigrant story.
Any other nitpicks? Well, the leading cast is outstanding, anchored by a powerhouse turn from del Rocio. The supporting players, however, are a mixed bag. Luckily, the most distracting weak links are the ones with only maybe one or two lines, so it doesn’t slow things down terribly much. While the film looks great on the whole — clean, crisp, professional-quality camerawork — the editing could definitely be tighter in spots. I distinctly remember one shot that lingered under a bridge lasting just long enough that I could ask “Why are we looking at a support pillar for a bridge?”
That said, it bears mentioning that this is an 85-minute film. As a rule, I have a difficult time recommending a film under 90 minutes long that still costs feature-length admission prices. Then again, I don’t know exactly how or when this movie is getting widely released or how much money the distributors will charge to see it, so this may not necessarily be a huge issue.
Overall, I was nicely impressed with Mother of Color. Even by professional Hollywood standards (on the level of A24, Searchlight Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics, etc.), this is a fine work of indie cinema. Keenly shot, confidently directed, boldly written, and the central performance from Ana del Rocio is a room-shaker. The film gives us a deeply sympathetic character facing countless arbitrary obstacles simply to go about her day, and asks the audience what we can do — from enacting government policies to sparing a couple bucks to a stranger — to make things easier for her and people like her. In this way, the film carries a powerful political charge in a timeless and uplifting way that has nothing to do with our ubiquitous bichromatic political spectrum.
This is one of those rare gems in cinema that could really win over some hearts and minds, and maybe even change some lives or laws if we’re really lucky. I dearly hope this movie gets a chance to find its audience and I hope you all get to check it out sooner than later.
Mother of Color is currently touring, and its future in any kind of wider distribution is presently unknown. In the meantime, check out the website and see if it’s screening near you. If there isn’t, reach out to the filmmakers and let them know they’ve got people in your town waiting to see this movie. Even better, get on social media and show the distributors that there’s an audience for this.
We’ve got a cause and an indie flick worth supporting here, gentle readers. Show them some love.
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