Spanglish, The Movie

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Flor (Paz Vega) wants nothing more than a chance at a better life for herself and her young daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). So, the determined single-mom steals across the border from Mexico and makes her way to L.A. where they settle in a Chicano barrio. But as an illegal immigrant who speaks no English, Flor's employment opportunities are severely limited.

This explains how she could end up as a housekeeper for as dysfunctional a couple as Deborah (Tea Leoni) and John (Adam Sandler) Clasky. Deborah is a shallow, spoiled-rotten, shrew while her henpecked husband is the head chef at a trendy four-star restaurant and an awkward nebbish who dreads all the sudden attention he ought to be enjoying. The Claskys have two nearly as neurotic kids. Teenage daughter Bernie (Sarah Steele) is overly concerned about her weight problem, due to the unrealistic demands of her relatively-trim, sadistic Mom. Younger brother Georgie (Ian Hyland) is a blase underachiever who has to be bargained with by his Dad just to get out of bed on schools days. They all live in a sprawling Bel Air mansion with Deborah's lush of a mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), a washed-up jazz singer who soaks her regrets in wine and spirits.

Flor finds herself immersed in this insanity soon after being hired, though initially unaware of the possible pitfalls of serving as a nanny for rich eccentrics, especially the emotional toll that it could take on her relationship with her very impressionable 12 year-old. And it is their mother-daughter dynamic which sits at the heart of Spanglish, a taut, absorbing melodrama, despite its frequent departures into sitcom-style humor.
The picture was expertly crafted and directed by three-time Academy Award-winner James L. Brooks, a legend long appreciated for his ability to present complex characters involved in compelling predicaments. His impressive screen credits include four Best Picture Oscar nominations, for Terms of Endearment, Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets and Broadcast News.

Spanglish certainly earns some serious consideration of its own for its earnest exploration of tensions cutting across class and cultural lines. What makes its antagonist, Deborah, utterly unlikable is the sharp contrast she cuts with Flor. This self-absorbed housewife has little respect for boundaries, expecting money to buy her anything, even the love of another woman's child.

Thus, it is easy to imagine the type of tensions which arise when she lavishes Cristina with attention and affection. The little girl’s gushing "I think you're the most amazing white woman I've ever met," leaves Flor feeling threatened, and Bernie even more neglected and rejected. The plot thickens when the Claskys rent a summer home in Malibu and offer Flor a live-in position. The beach setting serves as emotional quicksand as a love triangle and further complications ensue on the way to a well-concealed resolution.

Much of the film's effectiveness comes from its being narrated by Cristina, who, in flashbacks, recounts her life story while preparing an application for undergraduate admission to Princeton. Her universal message ought to resonate with audiences of any demographic, despite its unique perspective which reflects the thoughts of someone who is female, poor, fatherless, Mexican-American and an immigrant.

The acting in Spanglish is superb, even that of Mr. Sandler, who manages to keep his every adolescent urge in check. Sadly, I suspect that the only Oscar-contender among the cast will be Ms. Leoni for her over-the-top treatment as the obnoxious Deborah, though Ms. Vega and Ms. Bruce deserve as much, recognition for their gripping give-and-take.
Ten Best List material.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and graphic sexual content.
(In English and Spanish without subtitles)
Running time: 128 minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures

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