La Leyenda Negra: Review. By Trent Neely.
This film follows Latino teens in the city of Compton, CA. Specifically, Aleteia (Monica Betancourt) and Rosarito (Kailei Lopez). Aleteia is the new girl at her and Rosarito’s school and finds herself an outcast and the subject of bullying due to her introverted nature and body-shaming by her peers. Soon it is revealed that Aleteia has received a scholarship to attend UCLA. However, she becomes fearful of losing the scholarship due to the threat of termination of Temporary Protected Status under the Trump administration. In addition to political forces endangering her scholarship, Aleteia has been engaging with a protest group whose activities include spray painting and setting a fire in an empty school.
For her part, Rosarito is shown as someone who is struggling with the fact that she may have outgrown her friends. Specifically her childhood best friend Monica (Irlanda Moreno) who is shown to be vain, manipulative and a bully, especially towards Aleteia. One day, Rosarito volunteers to be partners with Aleteia on a school project despite Monica’s objections. The rest of the film centers on Aleteia and Rosarito’s journeys, how they differ and parallel, and how each person influences the other.
One of the greatest strengths of this film is how grounded and real it feels. At points in the film the camera seems virtually invisible. Allowing the film the ability to feel like it is capturing genuine conversations and moments in time. This is due in no small part to great directing and writing by Patricia Vidal Delgado. The fact that for a lot of the cast this is their only film credit may also explain why the film feels real, these are not a group of actors who have a large character persona attached, but people playing these specific roles. This speaks to Delgado’s abilities as a director to craft intimate, and poignant scenes and to get great performances from actors who do not have a ton of experience.
Delgado also does a great job of balancing time between Aleteia and Rosarito. It is a common pitfall when telling a story of two prominent characters to have one outshine the other. By the film’s end, Delgado ensures that all the characters are fully dimensional with varied, wants, needs, virtues, and flaws. This is not to say the actors themselves are not outstanding in their own right. Betancourt and Lopez in particular have great chemistry and give great performances.
While the performances are subtle in nature, one can see in their inflection and expression that there is great complexity in these characters. The choice to film in black and white also helps to accomplish this more realism-based approach. Matt Maio’s cinematography highlights the performance, focusing on movement, facial expressions, and allowing the sharp contrast to direct the audience’s eye. The camera never feels like it’s intention is to interfere or influence, only to observe and document.
Another strength in this film is how it celebrates Latino culture and honestly depicts the migrant experience. There is one section of the film entirely devoted to the characters attending a quinceanera. Characters frequently alternate between talking in English and Spanish. Not only do these teens have to deal with common adolescent milestones such as teen romances, fights among friends, and bullying. But these kids also deal with balancing the American culture with their family’s heritage.
Early on in the film, Aleteia gets in trouble for challenging a teacher’s instruction, arguing that a film shown in class romanticizes imperialism. The film also does a great job demonstrating that social media and podcasts have allowed and encouraged adolescents to participate in political conversations in ways that were never present before. We see Aleteia reading the news and listening to podcasts about the need for political action, which helps motivate a lot of her decisions over the course of the story.
This film offers subtle yet powerful performances from mostly unknown actors, has striking cinematography, and a mature and thoughtful examination of how the migrant experience and political strife can add even more stress to the confounding experience of adolescence.
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