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PARK CITY — (U.S. Dramatic Competition) Benavides Born is very typical of Sundance competition movies and then again it’s not. In such films over the years, high-school girls, especially ethnic girls, have strived to succeed in sports (Girlfight), in their desire for higher education (Real Women Have Curves) and in any number of other conflicts with family, boyfriends and teachers. Amy Wendel‘s Benavides Bornseems headed down that familiar path only to open up into a much more complex and penetrating look at a small Mexican-American community near the Mexican border.
Such films pick up awards more easily than they do theatrical distribution. But with a marketing campaign targeted to young women and the Latino market along with specialty film enthusiasts, Benavides Borncould bring in modest coin in a domestic release following festival play-dates.
Benavides is a small South Texas town whose mostly Latino residents are typically fourth or fifth generation Americans so English is the preferred language. Jobs and higher education are hard to come by for young people so many wind up recruited into the military, like the brother of the film’s female protagonist, who is stationed in Afghanistan.
Luz Garcia (Corina Calderon in an auspicious debut as a leading actress) thinks she sees an unlikely avenue to a scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin — power lifting. Despite a slight build, she is on her school’s power lifting team and headed for state championships, where she might win that scholarship. The only catch is she has to win outright. Finishing second gets her nowhere.
So the stage seems to be set for a Rocky-esque, feel-good movie about a young girl power lifting her way into higher education and, not incidentally, getting the hell out of Benavides. However, Wendel and her co-writer, producer and husband Daniel Meisel have a broader agenda.
There are the usual subplots involving the heroine’s military brother, close-knit family and a boyfriend, Ray (Jeremy Ray Valdez). Each delves into issues and community situations that give a viewer an intimate understanding of the challenges faced by those who are Benavides born. In Luz’s determination to escape the town’s stultifying environment, she makes a few poor choices and the opportunity to advance through an unusual sport for a girl seemingly vanishes.
Luz’s first impulses are self-destructive. Anger blinds her to other avenues of escape. She is still a young woman and not always clear about where her best interests lie. Her story eventually touches on issues ranging from illegal doping in sports to illegal immigration along the border.
In their feature debuts, Wendel and Meisel strike just the right balance in mixing personal drama with sociological observations about these Texas towns. Their film, shot entirely in Super 16mm, takes place at actual power lifting events and in the schools, oil rigs and a juvenile detention facility in the Benavides area.
Wendel and Meisel are outsiders who based their story on considerable research and interviews within this community. Instead of making a documentary though, they managed to find a strong dramatic vehicle to convey what they learned about the lives of this American community and the issues confronting its citizens. Not to mention giving a talented young actress the gift of a very showy role.
Production values are stalwart.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition
Cast: Corina Calderon, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Joseph Julian Soria, Julia Vera, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Julian Works, Leticia Magana
Director: Amy Wendel
Screenwriters: Daniel Meisel, Amy Wendel
Producer: Susan Kirr
Executive producers: Hall Wendel, Todd Barnes
Director of photography: Rob Hauer
Production designer: Jade Healy
Music: Kevin Afflack
Costume designer: Amy Maner
Editor: Andreas Santamaria
Sales: The Film Sales Co.
No rating, 91 minutes