(Having opened eyes for it’s honest, off-beat nature, Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside’s documentary América is still making the rounds at film festivals around the world.)
What would you do if your 93-year-old grandmother needed help, unable to care for herself? Would you abandon her, institutionalize her, pay for home care? In América, the debut documentary feature from co-directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, we find out what three brothers in Colima, Mexico, do when confronted with this particular challenge. After their father – himself a senior citizen – is arrested for elder abuse, having allowed his mother to lie in her own filth, neglected, they drop whatever they are doing, move back home and collectively minister to their abuela, the titular América. Though they make mistakes, and one could easily find fault with some of their methods, they are a (mostly) shining example of the better instincts of the human animal, and this film is a loving tribute to them and to the woman they love.
Their task is not an easy one, however. The first brother we meet is Diego, an athletic jack-of-all-trades living in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta when the story begins. An affable soul, he alternates between working in a surf shop, riding his unicycle, and dancing (on stilts!) as part of a restaurant’s evening entertainment. When he gets word of América’s dilemma, he leaves this relative idyll for Colima, where he reunites with brother Ro (short for Rodrigo), and Ro’s girlfriend Cristina (Cris). These two run a meditation business, so much of América’s day-to-day care falls on the now-unemployed Diego’s shoulders, though Ro and Cris chip in as much as possible. América may not always be entirely lucid, but she is pleasant enough, even when in pain, and the three younger folks share a gentle, cajoling rapport as they feed and bathe her at regular intervals. We sense how much of a positive presence she must have been when they were younger for them to love her as much as they do.
Soon, a third brother – Luis – joins them. Now a dynamic trio, the siblings not only alternate days (and styles) of care, but also join efforts, on the side, as a freelance circus act. As Diego explains in voiceover (his is the main voice of the film), the boys grew apart over the years, but the need to assist América forces them to rekindle old bonds. Still, there is an ongoing, and growing, tension among the three as the stress of their current life – and of the lives left behind – takes its toll. Stoll and Whiteside explore these love-hate interactions, granted amazingly intimate access to the brothers’ home. When they laugh, we are there; when they argue, we are there; when they physically fight, we are also there. The whole time, América is there, too, a fragile glue holding the family together.
This is impressive filmmaking, exhaustively observational in its approach and emotionally bracing in its intensity. As a portrait of love, however occasionally flawed, it is raw and passionate. Though sometimes pushed too hard by her grandsons, América seems better off than she would be in a nursing home. Or, at least, that is the question the directors ask us to consider: what would América choose if she had personal agency and a voice to match those of the young men? Is it love, in fact, to hold her so tightly and not set her free? Watch this powerful documentary that bears her name, and decide for yourself.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)