There’s something about the color of a Texas sky that’s virtually impossible to capture on film: cotton-candy pink clouds set against an expanse of lilac blue at sunset, or the warm honey-orange glow that greets the day. Diane Paragas’ “Yellow Rose” reflects those rare hues in a way that tells you the writer-director once called Texas home, and watching her story of a Filipina teen with a hankering for country music — which must be Paragas’ story too, at least in part — made this former Texan realize there are a lot of colors we don’t see in films about the Lone Star State, most of which focus on the white end of the spectrum.
Sure enough, Paragas grew up in Lubbock, Texas, birthplace of Buddy Holly, which is more than six hours from the live-music capital of Austin, although her young heroine lives just half an hour east in the tiny town of Bastrop. “Yellow Rose” was a nickname given to Rosario Garcia (played by Broadway discovery Eva Noblezada, a Tony nominee for “Miss Saigon”) when she was a little girl by classmates who, I’m willing to guess, didn’t know anyone else of Asian heritage. Cringey as it is, that racist pun likens her to the iconic Texas flower, and just as so many epithets can be turned inside out, it’s one Rose will learn to own as she finds her confidence.
Early in Paragas’ film, we see Rose listening to Patsy Cline records and practicing her guitar in her bedroom. What little we hear of her singing suggests that this young woman has talent, so we’re positioned from the get-go to watch her bloom over the course of “Yellow Rose.” The same goes for Noblezada, a genuine star who downplays her gifts for most of the film, then lets it all shine in the final scene. What we can’t necessarily anticipate are the obstacles that stand in her way.
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Set over the summer between Rose’s junior and senior years, the movie finds the teen beginning to assert her independence from her protective mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzalan). When Elliott (Liam Booth), who works at the local guitar shop, invites Rose to sneak away to catch a show at the Broken Spoke in Austin, her mother forbids it. “You’re ridiculously conservative!” Rose rants, but what she doesn’t realize until returning home quite late to witness her mother being hauled away by ICE agents is that the family is undocumented. This must be an incredibly heavy discovery to absorb, like learning that you’re adopted or that you have half-siblings by another parent, except in this case, it comes with stakes: It’s possible that both Rose and her mother will be sent back to the Philippines.
In the montage that follows, Paragas intercuts between Rose trying to process this information and Priscilla being processed at a detention facility (one of those institutional unpleasantries that Americans preferred to overlook until fairly recently, when both Obama’s and Trump’s policies forced us to confront how foreign-born opportunity seekers are treated like criminals). As it happens, this is the first time we get a good look at those stunning Texas skies, as Rose runs through a field at dawn the morning after her mother’s arrest.
Retrieving some of her belongings — most notably, the guitar — from the hotel where Priscilla worked as a maid, Rose finds a note pointing her to an old family friend, the happily married, comfortably assimilated Gail (Lea Salonga, another Broadway name, also from “Miss Saigon”). Rose and Gail were besties back in the day, but their lives took separate paths, and though the latter doesn’t factor into the movie for long, she serves to illustrate how different the immigrant experience can be for different people. Some get deported, while others go on to be first lady.
Sensing there’s no room for her in Gail’s life, Rose returns to the Broken Spoke, a real bar where a real Texas country singer (Dale Watson, a big-haired baritone who looks like Johnny Cash by way of Jim Jarmusch) takes her under his wing. Watson co-wrote most of the film’s original songs, although he plays it the other way around here: as a creatively blocked older crooner who takes inspiration from the young singer. His character encourages Rose, and together, they come up with the musical numbers that drive the film’s relatively conventional last act.
By this point, audiences aren’t necessarily looking for originality. That comes along the way via the cultural context Paragas brings to this gentle and occasionally generic coming-of-age, finding-your-voice story. The director tends to play all the drama a little too low-key, making for a nuanced film that will touch some and bore others. Still, the sensitivity she displays is more admirable than the alternative, and still manages to surprise at times — as when a rookie ICE agent (Zach Polivka) with an itchy trigger finger demonstrates late in the film how someone in Rose’s position can never rest easy.
Like Andrew Ahn’s “Driveways” earlier this year, “Yellow Rose” is ultimately a film about kindness. The world can be cruel, but the film’s characters tend not to be. Group those movies with Sundance prize winner “Minari,” and audiences have three terrific indies about growing up Asian in America — although this is the only one that sets the experience to music. “I never fit in, never could win / Though I tried and tried, this feeling don’t end / I feel out of place, sung out of tune / Like a velvet chair in a dusty saloon,” Rose shares through the lyrics of “Square Peg,” the beautiful country ballad that best sums up her feelings. It’s a keeper, and so is the film.