Fifteen years in development, writer-director Diane Paragas’ Yellow Rose arrives at a fraught point in the national immigration debate with its Texas-set story of an undocumented Filipina single mother and her teenage daughter struggling to remain in the U.S. Expanding on her 2017 short film, Paragas offers a clear-eyed, heartfelt interpretation of a classic American story that’s graciously inclusive and even a bit provocative in its assertion of individual and artistic independence. The film recently won juried narrative feature awards at both the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest.
Miss Saigon Tony Award winner Lea Salonga’s name may be the most prominent in the cast, but rising star Eva Noblezada also earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway revival of the period musical, in the role originated by Salonga. Here Noblezada plays 17-year-old Rose Garcia, who lives at a tatty roadside motel on the outskirts of Austin, where her mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzalan), has worked cleaning rooms since the two arrived from the Philippines years earlier.
Somewhat warily, they’ve remained in the U.S. illegally ever since, although Rose’s typical teenage concerns mostly revolve around fitting in at school and composing songs on her beat-up acoustic guitar. For Rose, it’s more than a hobby, but she’s reluctant to share her country-inflected compositions, even when cute classmate Elliot (Liam Booth), who works at the guitar store, tries to coax a few tunes out of her. Despite her misgivings, he does manage to persuade her to sneak away with him for an evening of parentally unsanctioned music and dancing at downtown Austin honky-tonk The Broken Spoke, telling her mom they’re going to a church meeting.
Rose’s fake ID gets her inside, but her amateur credentials are on full display as a lively house band led by alt-country musician Dale Watson plays two-step tunes for the crowd. Bar owner Jolene (Libby Villari) rescues her after she drinks way too much booze, helping Rose to sober up. By the time Elliot gets her back home it’s almost dawn, and just as they arrive Rose realizes that her worst nightmare is happening right before her eyes: an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on the motel, with her mom taken into custody. Rose knows that if she shows herself she’ll be arrested too, so she convinces Elliot to take her across town to her estranged aunt Gail (Salonga), who lives in a spacious home in a wealthy Austin suburb, where Rose will try to regroup and figure out her remaining options.
Without confronting the enormity of the national immigration crisis head-on, Paragas enlarges a glimpse of one fractured family’s attempt to hang on to a tattered shred of the American Dream into a humanistic portrait of hope and perseverance. Rose, with her love of country music that blends her Filipino heritage with American musical tradition, makes for a rather literal representation of assimilation, but one that’s thankfully not overly familiar.
Noblezada’s tender, honest performance bolsters this refreshing perspective as Rose, facing mounting setbacks, repeatedly returns to her music and the inspiration it provides. With the support of country singer-songwriter Watson (playing himself), Rose learns to follow her instincts and believe in the power of her talent to transform lives, most crucially her own, as she faces the many obstacles in the life of an undocumented immigrant. Salonga’s supporting turn proves all too brief, but her presence recalls her many memorable roles (Aladdin, Mulan) as a leading Filipino American performer.
Watson couldn’t be a better choice as Rose’s reluctant mentor, his brash, boozy demeanor repeatedly challenging her to overcome her preconceptions and trust her innate abilities, as well as his sometimes conflicting guidance. With quiet conviction, veteran Villari (Boyhood, Boys Don’t Cry) plays the tough but tender bar owner who shelters Rose, reliably attempting to provide the reassurance she needs to move on with her life.
Referencing both telenovelas and Filipino domestic dramas with a focus on separated families, Paragas’ script, co-written with Annie J. Howell, personalizes the perils of surviving undocumented in the United States, particularly in the current political climate in a state like Texas. While the requisite melodramatic elements are present, Paragas directs with flair, maintaining an evenhanded perspective throughout the film, particularly during the occasionally harrowing scenes of Priscilla’s incarceration.
Yellow Rose is all the more impactful for this judicious balance of emotion and insight, suggesting that Paragas has other, equally affecting stories yet to tell.
Venue: Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production company: Home Away Productions
Cast: Eva Noblezada, Lea Salonga, Princess Punzalan, Dale Watson, Liam Booth, Libby Villari
Director: Diane Paragas
Screenwriters: Diane Paragas, Annie J. Howell
Producers: Cecilia Mejia, Rey Cuerdo, Orian Williams, Jeremiah Abraham
Executive producers: Olivia Finina de Jesus, Karen Elizaga, Carlo Katigbak, John D. Lazatin, Juan Miguel Sevilla
Director of photography: August Thurmer
Production designer: George Morrow
Costume designer: Amanda Hall
Editors: Liron Reiter, Taylor Levy
Music: Christopher H. Knight