While Hollywood’s awkward gaze distorts Latinos in films like Blow (Colombian cokefiend melodrama) and All the Pretty Horses (filthy-Mexican-jail morality play), the second annual New York International Latino Film Festival gives you the real deal. With more than 50 works by and/or about Latinos, this year’s NYILFF unearths an emerging talent pool of young Latinos and an increasing sophistication in our depiction. After all, the current state of “being” Latino can range from the English-speaking, post-plantation Puerto Ricans in Noel Quiñones’s Flight of Fancy to aspiring rapper Walter Velasquez, who runs in an entirely African American milieu in Adam Watstein’s Off the Hook.
Of the films available for review, Natacha Estébanez and Jan Egelson’s The Blue Diner felt the most accomplished, showcasing a haunting performance by Lisa Vidal, whose character suddenly loses her ability to speak Spanish because of her nagging mother (the equally entrancing Miriam Colón). Set in Boston, of all places, The Blue Diner digs deep into the Boricua subconscious while making a class-based case for unity with newer Latin American immigrants.
Surprisingly edgy, Bro is a male-bonding farce about three second-generation Miami Cubans who dream of creating Kevin Smith-ish films by making a killing at the dog track; particularly impressive is Bill Teck’s brooding turn as loser-scammer Dom. Alex Muñoz’s Living the Life starts out like another L.A. gangsploitation flick, but evolves into an engaging mother-daughter slugfest, with nice work from Angela Alvarado Rosa as a gangsta mom and a fleeting peek at Crazy/Beautiful‘s Jay Hernandez. Kinan Valdez, son of legendary playwright Luis, offers a stunningly surreal black-and-white Vietnam War parable, Ballad of a Soldier.
NYILFF’s abundant shorts program includes Cristina Ibarra’s Dirty Laundry, a glimpse into middle-class life in the border region of El Paso, and Danny, an understated queer drama about a Mexican boxer and his hairdresser. But Peter Sollet’s unforgettable Five Feet High and Rising, a Loisaida version of Kids steeped in elegiac ghetto melancholy, is the kind of 20-minute eye-opener that gives a festival like this a reason for living.