The Gift of Song
Many musicians set out with the goal of becoming a rock star and making a lot of money. For others, the hope and desire to change lives with their music is a driving force. Some succeed, most don’t. In the case of 17-year-old Filipino girl named Rose (Eva Noblezada) in the new film Yellow Rose, the life she changes is her own.
She lives on the fringe of society with her widowed housekeeper mother Priscilla (Princess Punzalam) in an Austin, Texas roadside motel room, and splits time between school studies and guitar practice. She tugs at the epicanthic fold of her eyes in the mirror, envisioning herself like the anglo Country Music stars she emulates. With an introverted personality and a soul much older than her years, Rose doesn’t fit in and constantly battles with her overprotective mother. But she has the gift of song and a special talent for writing lovely country ballads that she dreams will one day make her a country music performer.
But Rose also has a secret. One that threatens not only her dreams of becoming a musician, but her life in America as well. She is an undocumented immigrant and is forced out on her own when mother Priscilla is picked up by Customs Enforcement officers to be sent back to her native Manila. With nowhere to go, Rose quickly finds herself destitute and flopping from couch to couch, including that of high school friend Elliot (Laim Booth), honky-tonk bar owner Jolene (Libby Villari), her aunt Tia Gail (Lea Solonga) and others, eventually wearing out her welcome everywhere she goes.
But Rose eventually finds an unlikely kindred spirit in aging country music star Dale Watson (played by himself) who sees tremendous talent in the opportunistic ingenue and helps develop her songwriting and performance skills.
Yellow Rose is superbly directed by first-timer Diane Paragas who also co-writes the script with Annie J. Howell. Their story cleverly avoids taking the immigration crisis head on while, instead, forcing us to experience the issue from the inside out as we witness one fractured family’s heartbreaking ordeal.
Speaking of heartbreaking: Paragas manages to give a fairly firm tug on the ol’ heartstrings during a scene in which Rose is denied a hug from her mother who is being held in a detention center. The attending officer points to a “no contact” sign and verbally reinforces the warning with an icy stoicism. Rose is confronted with the decision of whether to stay in the only home she has ever known, or return to the Philippines to be with her birth mother.
Though Paragas gets solid performances from the entire cast, the big standout here is Noblezada, who transitions beautifully from her Tony-nominated turn in Broadway’s revivals of Miss Saigon into her debut big screen role and shares a wonderful chemistry with veteran singer Dale Watson as the two light up the screen with their infectious charm and note-perfect crooning about square pegs fitting into round holes. Yes, that is actually them singing.
With admirable themes of inclusivity, hope, perseverance, emotion, and insight lovingly wrapped within a story involving the struggles of undocumented families, Yellow Rose deserves every bit of recognition it garners. It also deserves a much bigger audience than it is likely to receive. Paragas has managed to make a film that educates, inspires, and entertains. Something sorely missing in many of today’s movies.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “PG-13” for some strong language and teen drinking.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com)