August Evening is another for the ever-expanding “immigration movie” category, though writer-director Chris Eska’s border neorealism often plays more like a melodrama — whose machinery is alternately slowed and sped up by the ennui and displacements of migrant work and limited citizenship — than a straight-forward “issue movie.” Eska’s characters have an inner life whose mere backdrop is the perpetual tension of being without status in a country where one is only valued insofar as one can work. Gentle, firm Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) is nearing the end of his (working) life despite his resilience while his daughter in law Lupe (Veronica Loren) stays withdrawn after her young husband’s (Jaime’s son) death.
The film opens, like City of God, with chickens. Where that trickster favela chicken symbolized a life spent perpetually fleeing slaughter, August Evening’s multitudinous chickens are crammed into a factory farm, kept as long as they produce eggs then unceremoniously evacuated the second they drop. The analogy is frightful — particularly set to Windy & Carl’s ominous electronic score — and if it quickly takes a backseat to the family drama at the film’s center it still remains crushingly present.
Often in August Evening, family drama is truncated by the demands of work. Amidst arguments and reconciliations, Jaime’s surviving children — down and out dad Victor (Abel Becerra) and cold suburban career woman Alice (Sandra J. Rios) — are repeatedly called away from family matters and back to the grind. Family-centric communal life, it seems, is incompatible with a “time is money” society. Not surprisingly, by film’s end characters often opt for TV over conversation.
The characters — compelling for the most part — seem awfully familiar. For much of its mid-section, August Evening plays like one of those Victorian novels wherein our young heroine slowly but surely succumbs to the advances of her sweet, deserving mate. Lupe, granted, is a very strong presence around whom to structure a film (it’s disappointing that the final image is of Jaime, not her), but it’s certainly no surprise when she finally discards her mourning armor for Luis (the film’s only depthless, blindly benevolent character).
Solid acting throughout often keeps Eska’s work from being too noticeable, though he and director of photography Yasu Tanida’s visual style calls attention to itself repeatedly, both for its flair and its ugliness. Early countryside scenery – especially brief still asides to contemplate minor details of mis-en-scene – looks terrific in soft, bold video. Later city photography, meanwhile, provides a good argument for why video has yet to completely eclipse film (think of Michael Mann’s Collateral).
For all its ugly and pretty, urban and rural melancholy, August Evening keeps viewers’ attention on the strength of its leading actors for its first hundred minutes. The final chapter slows considerably, merely dramatizing events best left implicit. The section’s inclusion has the added effect of positing frail and lonely Jaime as the film’s lasting image, where Lupe’s shifting fortunes seem more appropriate. In an earlier scene she and Luis discussed the various misfortunes that had finally brought them together, and in a film about turning one’s disadvantages into strengths theirs seems the more relevant tale of survival.