Sundance 2022 Review: Isabel Castro’s “Mija” Dares to Dream

“He sounds good, but he’s having a meltdown now,” Doris Munoz tells a seemingly unconcerned stagehand as her client Cuco loses his way on stage at a concert in “Mija,” not knowing the lyrics to the song the band’s playing and doing his best to fake it. The fact that no casual listener would notice this is of cold comfort, and Munoz is more concerned for the musician she’s managed since leaving college than what anyone else thinks, but beyond actually caring for his welfare, the anxiety would appear to tap into something deeper as Isabel Castro’s sensational film makes clear that Munoz feels as if she’s pushed out on such a stage every day as the daughter of undocumented immigrants who has U.S. citizenship, having to put on some kind of facade that everything’s going fine when she feels it’s teetering on the edge of complete disaster.

Never hiding the fact that it’s a documentary, though embracing techniques that lean more towards fiction in shrewd ways, “Mija” is cleverly structured around the idea of illusions after Doris confides, in a voiceover that veers between endearingly conspiratorial and an inner monologue no one is supposed to hear, “Dreaming big takes a toll.” She reached her own early, hooking onto a rising star in Cuco, otherwise known as Omar Banos, a singer/songwriter from Hawthorne, and as he was seeing seven-figure paydays, she took on the responsibility to do something regarding her parents’ precarious immigration status, hiring an attorney and seeking green cards for them 32 years after they left Mexico. Her brother Jose was deported five years earlier and while her citizenship allows her to come and go to Tijuana, her parents cannot, placing her in the frustrating position of being seen as a success but having many immoveable obstacles still in front of her.

Although only incidentally a part of the story, “Mija” occurs as the COVID-19 pandemic sets in, with Cuco’s three years of non-stop touring coming to an end and Doris left to wonder about what’s next. The “black hole” of Instagram leads her to Jacks Haupt, a throwback artist out of Dallas and it is here “Mija” makes one of its boldest moves, leaving Doris for a bit to embed with Jacks as she comes to believe her career in music could come to pass with Doris’ help, though her mother, largely left off-screen as a looming threat, is unconvinced. Even if the two women weren’t about to forge a professional connection, Castro recognizes the personal one Doris and Jacks share when they know beyond creative fulfillment, music can be one of the few opportunities there is for them as Latinas that doesn’t require an expensive education or will pay a minimum wage forever and as Jacks’ story follows her dream to Los Angeles, you suspect what Doris was up against starting out, though like her, you also imagine that the reality of making it won’t be everything Jacks thought it would be, either.

Despite the very clear burden the two have as first-generation Americans who have extended undocumented families in the U.S., “Mija” is likely to resonate with far more generally as Doris and Jacks’ professional gains come with the nagging obligation that they do more for their loved ones, often at great cost to their own individual welfare. They’re hardly the ones to say “woe is me,” but the film conveys what a tragedy it is that all their accomplishments arrive in a bittersweet light, unable to be enjoyed purely when either a relative can’t come to celebrate or they feel they’re being selfish in their own pursuits as the rest of their family is struggling with issues out of their control. Castro and a talented team of editors that includes Alex Bohs, Oral Dekornfeld and Jennifer Tiexiera brilliantly work out a structure that always comes across as slightly out-of-sync, as the world must feel for Doris and Jacks as the past weighs heavily on them as they trudge towards a better future, but in fact with everyone behind the camera and in front having an ear for these things, when things all eventually start to align, “Mija” really sings.

“Mija” will screen virtually at the Sundance Film Festival for a 24-hour window beginning on January 22nd.