About midway through “América,” Diego and his brother Rodrigo are debating their 93-year-old grandmother América’s sense of reality, a discussion that will sound eerily familiar to most anyone who has had to care for a loved one as they get older. The brothers wonder if they’re indulging América too much, asking if by keeping her active and engaged they are actually serving themselves when she herself may not have a strong will to continue living since she seems out of touch. Your eye remains on them the entire time since they’re animated by the lively exchange, yet it’s worth noting how directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside contribute to the energy of it with little augmentation, putting this conversation in a different context than you’d typically see by allowing light into it, with the colors of the tie-dyed blanket Diego sits on undiminished and the airiness of the wide-open framing akin to how it might feel in América’s home in Colima, Mexico where the French doors to the backyard always seem to be open. The fact that Diego and Rodrigo’s talk of an end game is interrupted by a very much alive América punctuates both the surprise and the illumination of an incredible film that tells a story that so often is relegated to the dark.
If anyone was going to juggle the responsibilities of caring for their grandmother with grace and a bit of whimsy, it would be the three brothers Stoll and Whiteside train their camera on, all having a little bit of circus performing in their blood. As “América” begins, Diego and Rodrigo’s brother Bruno leads us into the film, riding a unicycle by day and dressing up as an Elvis personator by night – on stilts – performing for vacationers in Puerto Vallarta. Diego is there too, sanding off surfboards for tourists and teaching surfing lessons, though he’s called back to Colima when América is left all alone after she’s injured from falling off a bed. She’s fully recovered, but the family is in disrepair since her son, the brothers’ father Luis was arrested for elder abuse since América was in his care when the accident happened (but was away at the time), leaving the grandchildren fighting to get him out of prison while caring for her.
As tough a time as Diego, Bruno, and Rodrigo find themselves in, they wear the responsibility lightly, making a game of getting América to walk without holding her hand or attempting to loosen her constipation, with their love for her making the extraordinary seem so casual. Stoll and Whiteside take their cues from them, creating an elegant, unforced narrative full of affection for its subjects that still recognizes the situation for how dire it is. The sudden responsibilities that have been thrust upon the family of free spirits – Rodrigo and his girlfriend Cristina host holistic meditation sessions – has affected them all in different ways, and quiet, choice moments reveal where no words are needed in how united they feel and others where they disagree.
Given the title, América naturally is the heart of the film and the filmmakers rise to the challenge of reflecting what the brothers see, with her occasional confusion appreciated as a newfound sense of wonder about the world and her perceived frailty actually a demonstration of her great strength, pulling together her family who return the unconditional love she has always showed them. No matter how complicated the issues around the family get, it’s how simple and pure their connection is that has immense power and although one suspects getting to what “América” becomes wasn’t easy either with judicious editing and exquisite composition, Stoll and Whiteside extend that connection to an audience virtually unmediated, exuding soul to spare and a great deal of heart.