What is for the most part a decent but problematic family telepic, inspired (loosely, mind you) by the Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Little Mermaid,” gets a boost from a couple of sharp, very different performances from seasoned thesps Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso.
The title of the Showtime telepic, “The Princess and the Barrio Boy,” tells you almost everything you need to know about the story. Sirena (Marisa Nichols), a motherless Latina teenager from a wealthy family, falls for Sol (Nicholas Gonzalez), a hard-working kid who lives in East L.A. While the spoiled Sirena learns to take the bus, she also needs to keep her father (Olmos) from marrying his wicked fiancee (Alonso). The generic morals of the story are clear enough: Too much freedom can be a bad thing for a teenager, one needs to come to terms with the death of loved ones, and it’s always important to remember your roots. All this is too bland and predictable to be potent.
Pic also doesn’t work as a romance as the serviceable but unimaginative central relationship is left too vague. Young leads Nichols and Gonzalez (both from “Resurrection Blvd.”) look nice together and smile at one another a lot, but there’s barely an interesting exchange between them, and when there is it’s soon dropped. But what makes this pic worth watching, if only out of the corner of your eye, are the portrayals on the periphery.
Olmos delivers a straightforward performance that’s deceptively rich given his unadorned approach. Nestor Garcia is many things at once, all of which Olmos captures seemingly without effort: He’s a warm-hearted, worried single father, a lonely widower, a slightly naive fiance and a businessman who came from the barrio and has no qualms about his glee at having gotten out of it. There’s no shortage of opportunity for schmaltz here, but Olmos smartly avoids it.
While Olmos plays with subtlety, Maria Conchita Alonso digs into the deliciously evil role of the devious fiancee, whom her stepchildren-to-be refer to as the Sea Witch. As Minerva, Alonso is money-grubbing and manipulative, and yet she brings to this caricature just a dose of realism, unlike her compatriot in over-the-top silliness, Pale Shore, as her pretentious wedding planner. Alonso goes far enough to be funny, but not too far to be absurd, and in doing so she invests this film with a satirical edge.
In fact, it’s clear that director Tony Plana, who also wrote the story with producer Steven Paul, intends for “The Princess and the Barrio Boy” to be as much social commentary as fairy tale. The confluence of these two very different forms doesn’t quite work: As the social elements here fight against stereotypes, the fairy tale aspects drive the pic back toward them, with the rich folks needing a good education in life from the much more decent working class.
Nonetheless, the pic moves along just fine until about an hour in, where it starts losing its focus. There are scenes here that feel not just extraneous, but confusing. The story is overcrowded with events that are primarily intended to signal a change in Sirena’s state of mind but tend to muddy the narrative with needless metaphor.
Tech credits are acceptable.