At a time when we are still asking ourselves, if and when Latinas will ever be offered better acting roles, Eva Mendes has us believing Sí, Se Puede! in the film A Place Beyond the Pines (rated R). Mendes captivates as a woman conflicted by love and motherly duty in this film directed by Derek Cianfrance, delivering her best performance yet.
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Social class and one’s control over her own destiny are the main themes of this movie. The merging of an American family epic with a Greek tragedy, this is the story of two families–one blue collar, the other middle class–whose paths critically intersect over two generations. This film which is divided into three acts or movements is as well acted as it is ambitious.
Cianfrance colorfully uses the setting of Schenectady, an upstate New York city near the state capital of Albany, to set the stage for his metaphor of aspiration and upward mobility. In the Mohawk language, Schenectady means “the place beyond the pines.” The city is such an integral part of the film that it becomes a character with each of the three parts of the film distinctly shot. The phenomenal cinematography captures Schenectady’s beauty and complexity.
The film begins with Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a small time motorcycle stunt driver who somewhat nobly turns to robbing banks to support his six-month-old son with his girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes). In the film’s second part, the focus shifts to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a Schenectady police officer with a law degree whose father is an ex-judge. Cross is also the father of a young son. He becomes consumed with guilt when portrayed as a police hero after arguably suspect circumstances; a fascinating tale that further challenges the moral ambiguity set in the first part.
The film’s concluding chapter jumps 15 years into the future with the sons of these two men meeting as high school seniors. Sucked into a disturbing drug scenario, the young men find themselves paying for the sins of their fathers as a right of passage. Interestingly, Avery’s son AJ finds himself at Schenectady High School after slumming in Troy; his character appears to be a nod to the Trojan war hero Ajax, subtly strengthening the film’s allegorical tone.
Cianfrance paints a portrait of Schenectady as a once vibrant city fueled by General Motors that has faded under the strain of hard times. The city, still rustically beautiful, has become a true melting pot of the 1950s classic “Salt of the Earth” meets “Somos Aquí.” It’s interesting to note that Schenectady has received national attention because the Latino population there, as in much of the country, has skyrocketed. Cianfrance explores the changes and the ensuing tensions through Mendes’ character–Romina.
Without giving away too much, Mendes brings profundidad–depth–to her performance and this is important if you look at it in the historical context of Latina actresses and Hollywood. In the 1920s, Hispanic melted men’s hearts with their accented English for a chance to just appear on screen. Leaping forward to the 1950s, actresses such as Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch felt they needed to anglicize their names to compete for roles. While today Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, and Eva Longoria have made tremendous headway, Latinas aren’t offered many roles with gravitas of a strong woman. This is what I love about Mendes’ portrayal of Romina. She plays the character as she is. Someone we all know. And she does it wonderfully, with real grace.
Another layer that stands out is Romina’s relationship with Luke and what it says about race and ethnicity in America. This dynamic is further complicated with Romina’s fraught relationship with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), an African-American man who wants to build a family with her and her son. On this theme and others, Cianfrance is consistent, never overt, or proselytizing, but provocative. The film is an observation of a city, relationships, and reality–an alluring presentation of life.
Cianfrance who also co-wrote the screenplay gets high snaps from me for writing in and casting an Hispanic character. He is as shrewd a businessman as he is an edgy director: with a population of 52 million, Latinos make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population with a buying power expected to top in 2015 $1.5 trillion. In 2012, we watched 25 percent of all movies. It’s refreshing to see directors integrate our community because psst, we are an integral part of society. Granted this is an indie flick. Now it’s up to us to support such films so larger production companies see the demand.
“A Place Beyond the Pines,” is lofty in its narrative pursuit although some may feel that its length–140 minutes–weighs it down. Nonetheless it is worth seeing. Just like Schenectady itself, the film may be a little rough around the edges, but from certain vantage points, it’s breathtaking.
A morning news producer on the “vampire shift,” The Wise Latina Club’s Lauren Rivera is a writer, television producer, and media extraordinaire. She loves to dance, travel, laugh a whole lot, explore her new home city of Washington, DC, and write this weekly feature Premiering with Lauren–reviewing films for The Wise Latina Club. Click here to read more about and connect with Lauren.
Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.When was the last time you saw a Latina actress in a smart, complex role?