'La Leyenda Negra': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Full of heart, but wide of the mark.

Patricia Vidal Delgado’s feature debut about a Central American teen migrant coming of age in Compton premiered in the festival’s NEXT program.

Intentionally provocative, artistically uncompromising and self-consciously polemical, La Leyenda Negra attempts to inform by incitement, challenging audiences to concede to an unvarnished view of migrant life in working-class Los Angeles. Writer-director Patricia Vidal Delgado’s black-and-white, micro-budget feature is an unabashed advocacy film, dedicated to immigrants living in the U.S. facing potential expulsion under the current administration’s policies. This emphasis on thematic elements rather than characterization or plot makes for some occasionally awkward moments, but the film’s Sundance premiere should prompt like-minded fests to come calling, which may eventually induce a niche-oriented streamer to take interest.

Delgado centers her narrative, alternating between English and subtitled Spanish-language dialogue, on Compton teen Aleteia Benevides (Monica Betancourt). Originally from El Salvador, she received Temporary Protected Status (which permits some migrants to remain in the U.S. for a limited period of time) when she arrived from Central America as a child, along with her single mother. Living now with her stepfather (Juan Reynoso) following her mom’s death, teenage Aleteia favors a frequently combustible antisocial attitude that’s a mix of sly intelligence, personal outrage and political calculation, indelibly influenced by her family’s struggle to make a new life in California. Angered by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies, Aleteia responds by secretly collaborating with a Compton black bloc cell of self-styled anarchist agitators staging local protests.

After transferring to Compton High School in the middle of her senior year, Aleteia attempts to find her footing on a new campus where she barely knows anyone. She’s convinced though that with a scholarship to UCLA in hand she’ll easily be able to complete her final semester. However, she’s not counting on a hostile reception from her classmates, including popular girl Monica (Irlanda Moreno) and her friends Carmen (Maria Jose Fernandez) and Rosarito (Kailei Lopez), who take exception to her superior manner.

At first it might seem like Monica and her sidekicks are overreacting, but Aleteia continues to wield her arrogant attitude like a weapon, alienating almost everyone around her. As a survival strategy this tactic may be effective, but clearly not everyone’s convinced that she’s as exceptional as she seems to think, particularly since she doesn’t demonstrate the level of academic achievement that would be expected from a scholarship recipient.

Nonetheless, when their teacher ejects Aleteia from class for behaving disrespectfully, Rosarito, who plans to attend CSU Long Beach after graduation, experiences a spark of unexpected admiration and offers to partner with her on an assigned class project. Their collaboration encourages Rosarito to invite Aleteia to her cousin’s quinceanera, where Monica picks a fight, insulting Aleteia’s Salvadoran heritage and calling her out for flirting with Rosarito. Aleteia goes off angry, but it’s nothing compared to her reaction when she receives unwelcome news from UCLA that sends her into an uncontrollable rage, not only endangering her budding relationship with Rosarito, but perhaps her own safety as well.

Like many teens inclined to test boundaries, Aleteia doesn’t seem to seriously consider the consequences of her choices. Her surreptitious nighttime forays tagging neighborhood buildings and even school grounds with political slogans and the circle-A anarchist symbol pose a significant risk of jeopardizing her scholarship or even courting arrest, potentially putting her hard-won immigration status in peril. Such headstrong determination may be admirable (Rosarito calls her a “badass”), or it could be self-destructive, as Aleteia discovers when she attempts to push her protests beyond her ability to control the consequences.

Betancourt’s scrappy performance signals that she’s in sync with Aleteia’s sentiments, particularly when she levels a cutting glance at anyone who makes the mistake of underestimating her. Lopez’s Rosarito comes across as more tentative in her thoughts and emotions, gaining confidence as Aleteia gradually begins expressing interest. The supporting cast, dominated by first-timers, is adequate overall, despite demonstrating limited range.

Delgado’s choice of monochromatic cinematography resonates with the film’s examination of polarizing political issues, but that congruence doesn’t compensate for some obvious technical challenges. In particular, some dizzyingly shaky handheld camerawork and problematically low lighting can be distracting, while sound mixing missteps occasionally mar the performances.

The film’s title is a reference to “The Black Legend,” a pervasive anti-Hispanic cultural trend that’s persisted for centuries, currently manifesting in the U.S. as bias toward Latino residents and immigrants.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production company: Patricia Delgado Productions
Cast: Monica Betancourt, Kailei Lopez, Irlanda Moreno, Maria Jose Fernandez, Justin Avila, Sammy Flores, Juan Reynoso
Director-writer: Patricia Vidal Delgado
Producers: Alicia Herder, Marcel Perez
Executive producer: Julianna Politsky
Director of photography: Matt Maio
Production designer: Andrea Arce Duval
Costume designer: Alejandra Madrigal
Editor: Steven Moyer
Music: Sebastian Rizo

84 minutes