My Family (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

My Family, the portrait of a Mexican-American family living in East Los Angeles, boasts a series of distinguished thematic antecedents, including Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Zhang Yimou's To Live. Here, as in the 1972 gangster saga, the significance of family is a central issue, although each movie chooses to explore this differently. In The Godfather, Vito and Michael Corleone struggled to hold their household together regardless of outside pressures; in My Family, family unity gives meaning to existence.

Although vastly different from The Godfather, To Live is also echoed by My Family. The 1994 Chinese film followed two characters from early marriage to old age, observing keenly that though lives end, life continues. Here, the setting is different, but the message is the same. My Family never shrinks from tragedy, but it doesn't wallow in it, either.

One highlighted truth is the commonality of the human experience. Though the focus is one specific family, every issue confronted by the characters is universal. As is true in all good "ethnic" motion pictures, the central culture provides a rich and resonant backdrop to stories capable of touching anyone, regardless of heritage or upbringing. Certain emotions, beliefs, and hopes cross racial lines, and it is through these that My Family finds its strength.

This film, which is epic in scale (although not in length -- the running time is just over two hours), canvasses sixty years and three generations. Major events take place in three periods: the late 1920s and early 1930s, the late 1950s, and the 1980s. The third era is the longest and most detailed, but valuable background is presented in the other two. My Family requires the totality of its story for the climactic moments to attain their full dramatic impact, especially since writer/director Gregory Nava (El Norte) refuses cheap, theatrical methods of audience manipulation.

My Family opens in 1926 Mexico, as Jose Sanchez heads north to California to find a long-lost relative. Once there, he meets and marries Maria, who bears him a son and daughter. She is pregnant with their third child when immigration officials illegally deport her. The rest of this segment concentrates on her attempts to return to her husband and family.

The 1958 and 1980s episodes present the fortunes of two of the Sanchez children: Chucho (Esai Morales) and Jimmy (Jimmy Smits). Chucho is a brash youth who leads a gang, incurs the wrath of his father when he sells marijuana, and is constantly skirting trouble with the police. Jimmy idolizes his older brother and eventually follows in his footsteps, but the underlying pain of one shared, tragic moment haunts Jimmy's future. It is only during a watershed scene, when the anger and grief are released, that Jimmy is able to agree that "tomorrow matters."

Never before has Jimmy Smits shown the range and aptitude he displays here. As the emotional fulcrum of My Family, he is consistent, with no evidence of over- or underacting. Esai Morales and Constance Marie, who play two of Jimmy's siblings, bring fire, energy, and a touch of humor to their roles. In the parts of the aging Jose and Maria, Eduardo Lopez Rojas and Jenny Gago offer unforced performances salted with joy and pathos. Edward James Olmos as Paco, one of six Sanchez children, is the narrator (I could have done without the lengthy and intrusive voiceovers). Other cast members include Scott Bakula and Mary Steenburgen.

My Family constantly builds upon itself. Each scene has meaning not only because of what comes before it, but for what it adds to all that comes after. The film runs the audience through a range of emotions from laughter to tears, but the tone retains a sense of hopefulness. Nava has a clear vision that is achieved through the exceptional work of his cast and crew.

My Family is amazingly rich, with themes that are topical-yet-timeless, a solidly-constructed story to give them vitality, and superlative production values. Cinematographer Edward Lachman has photographed all three eras differently, and his visual flair adds another layer to this production. My Family gives us culture shock and class distinctions, metaphors involving owls and bridges, and the struggle between traditional values and modern ethics. It never dwells on gang violence, crime, or racism; but ignores none of these three. Above all, however, it is faithful to its title, presenting the newest portrait of an ancient truth -- of all the ties that bind humans to each other, none is more lasting than that of birth and blood.

My Family (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 1995-05-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English and Spanish with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1