Nicely judged effort, whose low-key tenor downplays the story's potentially lachrymose or melodramatic elements.
An orphaned American 12-year-old’s culture shock, after being shipped off to his previously unknown grandmother in Manila, is the hook to “Santa Mesa,” writer-director Ron Morales’ first feature. Nicely judged effort, whose low-key tenor downplays the story’s potentially lachrymose or melodramatic elements, is in some ways a throwback to the humanist problem dramas of another era — which won’t help it much in an indie marketplace no longer very accommodating to such tales. But this polished, engaging pic should make friends on the fest circuit, possibly attracting niche arthouse, tube or home-format buyers.New Jerseyan Hector (Jacob Kiron Shalov) wakes up in the hospital with just minor abrasions after an apparent car accident, but his single Filipina-emigre mother dies. To his own bewilderment, and that of concerned family friend Maggie (Melissa Leo, seen just briefly at beginning and end), he’s told that his grandmother — his sole surviving relative, whom mom never spoke about — has offered to take him in. Suddenly the kid is in a teeming Manila slum that’s unlike any he’s experienced before. He speaks no Tagalog, and gruff granny Lita (vet local star Angie Ferro) speaks zero English — but they’d probably dislike each other even if they could communicate. She sells tickets at a railway station, living in an apartment right off the tracks; there’s little for Hector to do but wander the streets. Predictably, that leads to trouble, as the first “friend” he makes is Miguel (Pierro Rodriguez), the volatile leader of a teen-delinquent gang. Wanting to be accepted, he’s dared to break into a random home in a better neighborhood. This results in a most unpleasant first encounter with its resident, retired English-speaking photographer Jose (Jaime Tirelli). First as payment for damage, then in a spirit of reluctant paternal interest, Hector winds up doing some simple household tasks for the man, who even starts teaching him the rudiments of photography. Hector also spends time with Sel (Maria Lopez), an abused teen who takes a shine to him — which is sure to bring down the wrath of her boyfriend Miguel. There are no great surprises here, but Morales displays a deft hand with cast, atmosphere and conflicts that, in other hands, might have turned contrived, preachy or lurid. Highlights in the solid production package are Yaron Orbach’s color-saturated nocturnal lensing and Daniel Belardinelli’s ethereal score.