Compliments of the Sundance Waitlist | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Compliments of the Sundance Waitlist

Wasn't able to stay for the Q&A, so I have little background on Don't Let Me Drown, but I know from the intro that it was developed by the Sundance Institute, and the director, Cruz Angeles, brought a baby onstage, whom he called "Julian, the film's twin," because he and co-writer, Maria Topete found out they were pregnant about a month into the development process. He also thanked everyone and their mothers like it was the Academy Awards, which was almost as adorable as sleepy-Julian. Just a couple of wish-you-were-here factoids.

As the film opens, the acting and dialogue seem stilted, but they pick up quickly (and how—it's kinda strange—did they actually shoot the scenes in order or something?) Don't Let Me Drown is the story of two teens, bearing the burdens of two families. Lalo's (E.J. Bonilla) parents are Mexican immigrants trying to make ends meet. His mom sells empanadas from a shopping cart in their Brooklyn neighborhood (also a familiar site in my 'hood of Washington Heights), and his father, formerly a janitor at the World Trade Center, pulls 16 hour shifts cleaning up Ground Zero. Stefanie (Gleendillys Inoa) is the new girl from Manhattan. Her family moved from the Bronx to the Lower East Side so that her older sister, a young college graduate and obviously the source of much family pride, could take a job in the World Trade Center. After her death, they move to Brooklyn to be closer to cousins and farther from Ground Zero.

The fallout from 9/11 shapes everything in these kids' lives. Maybe Stefanie's father used to be gentle and loving, but now his grief escapes in violent spurts, directed towards his wife and young daughter with the least provocation. Additionally, the man is plagued with guilt because he was unable to protect his oldest daughter from the planes, the fire and the debris, so he's damned well going to keep Stefanie under lock and key. Stefanie is required to come straight home after-school (preferably escorted by her cousin), and she is definitely not allowed to have a boyfriend.

There's nothing on TV, ever, except archived footage of the towers falling, and every day Lalo's father works in the asbestos-leaking ruins--just another expendable immigrant laborer, unnoted by the American public. He works alongside those firefighters we label heros and hold parades to honor, and none of it matters because, at night Lalo's father and the firefighter go to their disparate neighborhoods and cough up the same black gunk.

Other interesting nods to class and race—Lalo, Stefanie and their friends are quick to label situations "ghetto," marking a self-consciousness that seems true to life (I hear this phrase often on the train headed to my 'hood), and Lalo's mother is disappointed to learn that her son's with a "big-lipped black Dominican girl." Lalo and Stefanie are tender and extraordinarily chaste. In a direct defiance of stereotypes, no one gets drunk, takes drugs or has sex.

This is a film about trust and young love, sure, but almost just as much, I think it's a film about fathers protecting their families the best way they know how—which, in Stefanie's case means violence, and Lalo's case means lies. My guess is, someone will buy it, and we will eventually see it again. If you get the chance, do see it. It's not perfect, but it's brave and it's touching. Sometimes it's even funny.

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