Uncle Sam wants you, but not quite enough to give you your citizenship. At least that’s the message imparted by “Greencard Warriors,” a well-meaning but leaden and predictable inner-city drama about the hardscrabble lives of illegal immigrants trying to survive the violent streets of Central Los Angeles. We’ve been here before — and better — in films by Gregory Nava (“Mi familia”), Edward James Olmos (“American Me”) and Chris Weitz (“A Better Life”), which offered finely detailed atmosphere and character work where Dutch writer-director Miriam Kruishoop offers mostly tiresome ghetto cliches. After playing the fest circuit last year under the title “Crosstown,” the pic rolls out in select AMC theaters this weekend via distrib New World Cinemas.
For her English-language directing debut, Kruishoop (“Vive Elle,” “Under the Palms”) has chosen the kind of social melodrama that seeks to open the eyes of privileged audiences to some alarming plight happening right under their bourgeois noses. But her approach is so clobbering that it calls to mind those 1980s TV commercials that warned of the dangers of drug use by showing a fetus smoking a cigarette or a human brain transformed into scrambled egg batter. In “Greencard Warriors,” Kruishoop puts an entire family into that sizzling skillet: hard-working day laborer Jesus (Manny Perez), his wife Rosie (Christianne Christensen) and their three children. Having made the arduous trek north from their native El Salvador, they now wonder what it was all worth, as they struggle to make ends meet and to keep their two teenage sons away from the gang life that rules the neighborhood streets.
For their eldest, Beto (Mario Ardila Jr.), one way out seems to be the Army, especially after a couple of hard-sell recruiters come calling with the promise of a better life not just for Beto, but also for his entire family. Enlist, they say, and a shiny new green card will be waiting for you, after which your relatives can apply for papers, too. It all sounds too good to be true, and it turns out to be just that: Guilted by Jesus into signing up, Beto almost as quickly arrives back home in a box, with no green card anywhere in sight. Per some statistics that flash onscreen at the start, as of 2007 more than 20,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army were seeking citizenship, though “Greencard Warriors” never bothers to tell us how many — if any — of them actually succeed in this quest.
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Instead, the movie shifts into “West Side Story” mode to focus on 14-year-old Angel (Angel Amaral), who doesn’t share his late brother’s affection for the thug life, but who does take quite a liking to the African-American neighbor girl Jazmine (Paige Hurd) — a mixing of races that, in this part of town, is akin to snitching or wearing the wrong colors. Predictably, nobody wants Angel and Jazmine to be together — not Jazmine’s mom (Vivica A. Fox) and dad (McKinley Freeman), and certainly not the menacing homies who keep trying to lure Angel into their gang.
We know that none of this is going to end well for anyone. The characters certainly can’t put their trust in the police, who are depicted here in the same brutalizing, insensitive manner as many of the films about inner-city Los Angeles that emerged in the wake of the Rodney King riots. The movie has the steady drone of tragic inevitability, but this is tragedy in the generic rather than the specific. For all its sincere intentions, Kruishoop’s script feels cobbled together from newspaper headlines and bits of other movies rather than real, lived experience.
The actors do what they can with the material, especially Perez (“Wahington Heights”), Amaral and the real ex-gang member Richard Cabral, who has the authentic street menace of the young Danny Trejo. In the movie’s best scene, a distraught Jesus confronts Beto’s Army recruiters about his dead son, only to find that they barely remember who he even is. There’s real pain, anguish and defeat in that moment, and a kind of real, messy human drama that too infrequently breaks through this movie’s earnest, activist surface.