Pleasant seriocomedy “Mariachi Gringo” stars Shawn Ashmore as a depressed young American who finds a new lease on life going south of the border to play traditional Mexican music. This plot hook never seems like more than a gimmick, one that might easily have been replaced by any other form of expression not at all indigenous to blond farm boys from Kansas, but helmer Tom Gustafson and scenarist Cory Krueckeberg make it go down easily in a package more polished than their prior collaboration, gay Shakespearean update “Were the World Mine.” Fest travel should preface primarily home-format commercial placements.
On the verge of 30 and still living with his parents in rural Middle America, Edward (Ashmore) is “tired and unmotivated,” by his own admission, though unhappy about taking the medications prescribed for that funk. His mother (Kate Burton) tries to be helpful, but her efforts feel invasive instead, and the tiny degree to which Edward gets himself out and about vanishes when he’s laid off from a no-brainer job.
Fleeing Mom’s latest nagging, he lands at local Mexican restaurant El Mariachi, where he’s very taken by the music of the family owners’ aging patriarch, Alberto (Fernando Becerril), who in turn is delighted to have an appreciative listener. Soon the older man (who was a star musician many years ago) is schooling the younger (a lapsed acoustic guitar player) on “the soundtrack of life in Mexico.” Much to his own family’s bafflement, Edward decides this is the personal mission he’s been looking for, and that pursuing it means going south alone, despite his shaky Spanish and just-formative singing/playing chops, to try making it as a professional mariachi.
Arriving in Guadalajara, capital of the region where mariachi started in the 18th century, the gringo is promptly shaken down by some crooked cops. Fortunately, they’re scared off by the brassy intervention of Lilia (Martha Higareda), a UC Santa Cruz grad who has reluctantly returned to help her mother (“Babel’s” Adriana Barraza) with their own family restaurant, now that her dad has passed away. With Lilia’s help, he gets a nice boarding-house room, a job helping out in the kitchen and some pointers from her friend, local frontwoman Sofia (noted vocalist Lila Downs). Pretty soon — a bit improbably so, despite Ashmore’s convincing musical progress — he even gets to audition for a mariachi band with a national profile.
While the premise feels a bit thin and the overall progress never strays far from fish-out-of-water formula, the execution is consistently ingratiating, even when it frustrates by raising ideas that go undeveloped. It’s suggested that Edward has a clinical history of psychological problems, but we never get any details on that front; his relationship with the sexually and motivationally ambiguous Lilia likewise flirts with complexities whose further exploration might similarly have tipped the story’s lightweight balance. “Mariachi Gringo” succeeds in simply being a charming diversion, which in the end is all its modest scope aims for.
Perfs and production values are more smoothly accomplished than in “Mine,” even if that uneven film’s novel concept was a bit more memorable than the one here.