A modest sophomore feature by the team of helmer Matthew Bonifacio and writer-actor Carmine Famiglietti (“Lbs.”), “Amexicano” starts unprepossessingly enough but lingers in the mind. Constantly unpredictable yet totally organic, this low-key tale of an improbable friendship between an out-of-work Italian-American and a young Mexican illegal alien in Queens maintains an engaging, even keel through bumpy tonal shifts that would derail most indie outings. With immigration a hot-button topic these days, pic could get a shot at the arthouse distribution it surely deserves.
Bruno (Famiglietti), an overweight average Joe who’s unemployed, is offered an off-the-books construction job by his landlord and friend Alex (Michael Aronov). He’s told to pick out a helper at a corner of Northern Boulevard, where Hispanic illegals hang out looking for work.
Bruno reluctantly agrees, only half-joking about his ethnic prejudices, but the first guy he picks up, Diego (Manny Perez), lives up to all his worst fears.
His second attempt, however, yields Ignacio (a pitch-perfect Raul Castillo), an open, thoroughly likeable, competent and hard-working young man, who speaks little English. Soon the two are teaching each other their respective tongues, sharing lunches and becoming best buds.
Ignacio’s lovely, rather impish wife Gabriela (Jennifer Pena) invites Bruno to their home, and Bruno soon becomes the odd Italian out, awaiting gigs on Northern Boulevard with the Mexican guys and attending Mexican birthday parties and soccer matches. He is accepted by all except Diego, who has citizenship papers and bullies anyone who dares to stand up to him, threatening to turn them in to the immigration authorities.
An unprovoked attack lands Ignacio first in the hospital and then back in Mexico, and strands Bruno with Gabriela, to whom he is increasingly drawn. In pic’s depiction of the everyday ebb and flow of economically on-the-edge existence, seemingly insurmountable obstacles magically dissolve while mere border logistics can prove fatal.
Pic continually shifts the familiar onto unfamiliar grounds, such as an American on Northern Boulevard, or Mexicans in Queens (of course, Queens claims more diverse nationalities per square foot than the United Nations, so why not Mexicans?).
Pic’s implication seems to be that Bruno belongs on Northern Boulevard now that the social playing field has been leveled. Once Bruno is out of work, he is quasi-dispossessed, without a community, sense of belonging or legal way to make ends meet.
The filmmakers adeptly introduce changing emotional elements into the mix without disturbing the bedrock composition of their characters. They steer their story from near-comedy to tragedy with no sense of artificiality, reliance on forced coincidence or intrusion of overweening fate. This is helped in no small measure by the ease with which writer-star and noted standup Famiglietti essays his role.
Indeed all the thesping is excellent, while William M. Miller’s lensing quietly naturalizes the unobtrusive Queens neighborhood. A very different, less forgiving landscape, however, frames the film’s finale on the New Mexican border, measuring an insurmountable distance to the American dream.