Those who complain “immigrants are stealing our jobs” hardly seem likely applicants for the jobs held by protagonists in “Fruits of Labor” — such as cleaning other people’s houses or working the graveyard shift in a food processing plant. Constant hard work doesn’t seem to bring the American Dream much closer for this Mexican American family on California’s central coast. Emily Cohen Ibanez’s debut feature provides a flavorful glimpse at lives seldom represented in popular media, though she also obfuscates that view somewhat with fussily artistic fillips and a disinterest in some basic matters of explication.
A discussion-worthy item on the fest circuit, the documentary was acquired for U.S. broadcast by POV after its SXSW premiere and will be part of that nonfiction PBS showcase’s next season. It could also attract further festival dates, as well as limited TV/streaming sales abroad.
18-year-old Ashley is in her senior year of high school, but worries about graduating: She’s frequently too exhausted from packing flash-frozen strawberries on an all-night assembly line to attend daytime classes. She doesn’t have much choice in the matter, having worked since age 15 to help support three younger siblings. Their mother Beatriz is limited in her own employment options by her undocumented status. She does housecleaning seven days a week in wealthier neighboring communities. Her children were all born here (their father is apparently long out of the picture), but those U.S. roots so far haven’t seemed to benefit them much: They live in a dilapidated house, purportedly sharing a sole bathroom with 12 other families.
We’d like to get more explanation of why that is (let alone how that works), but “Fruits of Labor” doesn’t show the neighbors, or even Ashley’s two youngest siblings. We do see her boyfriend Adrian, as well as her 16-year-old brother Ashford, who generates some resentment because “all he cares about is skateboarding, video games and his girlfriend Ximena.” (Ashley fears she’ll be stuck supporting even more people when Ximena gets pregnant.) Meanwhile, they’re glued to TV reports of the Trump administration’s family separation policies and ICE raids, with Beatriz understandably terrified that she might be targeted for deportation.
The vérité content is intriguing but spotty. We’re too often told rather than shown what’s happened in the family. At the end, there’s a sense that things have taken a general turn for the better, but little intel on how that’s come to pass. Have Ashley’s work responsibilities somehow lessened to allow greater concentration on her studies? That would be good to know. Ibanez might better have focused on clarifying such basic issues than expending so much effort on the film’s pretty but rather strained poetic devices, which incorporate time-lapse nature photography and such. Her symbolism is a little too on-the-nose: When Ashley variously describes herself as being like a “scared turtle” or a “blooming flower,” we duly get closeups of actual turtles and flowers.
If “Fruits of Labor” frustrates to a degree in offering only partial insight toward its subjects and their community, that view is nonetheless still absorbing, and the film’s craftsmanship evolved enough to suggest Ibanez has a solid future. The technically accomplished documentary’s narrative gaps are papered over to an extent by the tonal glue of Yamil Rezc’s good keyboard-based original score.