NYILFF Review: "Don’t Let Me Drown"

When first-time director Cruz Angeles’s film Don’t Let Me Drown premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it created a fair amount of
buzz. It was even nominated for a Grand Jury Prize and later won an Audience
Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Now that it’s screened
in NYC (first in June on the opening night of BAMcinemaFEST and now as part of
NYILFF), I predict it will have an even bigger following, if only because the
Big Apple is at the heart of this heartfelt movie and it’s responsible for the
depth of each character, young and old. Angeles (who cowrote the film with
Maria Topete) deliberately picked the most vulnerable period in NYC’s
history—immediately following 9/11—to allow his characters to experience war.
And not just the external war that then–President Bush declared on Muslims (and
by default, all minorities living in America), but also the war raging within
each person living in New York as they grapple with a sense of fear and loss. The
key, ultimately, is compassion, and the bonds that form in this strange,
changed world the characters awaken to.

At the center of the story is a
Dominican family, the head of which is an emotional wreck (Ricardo Chavira, who
delivers a surprisingly strong performance). My knowledge of him is limited to
Carlos Solis on Desperate Housewives
, so you can imagine my surprise. As the father of a young girl
killed in the Twin Towers, he has no other outlet for his pain than anger,
which he unleashes on his wife, played by Gina Torres (an extremely underrated
actress and the real-life wife of Laurence Fishburne) and his teen daughter,
Stefanie (newcomer Gleendilys Inoa), who’s slowly becoming a woman. Having just
lost her only real role model (her older sister excelled in college and proudly
entered corporate America), Stefanie seeks to escape her broken home by hanging
out with free-spirited kids who do New York things like skip school and go to
barbecues or ride bikes around the city all day long. When she meets a Mexican
teen named Lalo (E.J. Bonilla), the tensions within our community become
apparent, as there are several references to stereotypes about Dominicans and
Mexicans (Lalo’s mom dislikes Stefanie because she’s darker-skinned, while
Stefanie’s family looks down on Lalo because he’s a “wetback.”) Despite this,
the two teens fall for each other and a deep affection develops, the kind that
is a little more than puppy love in that it makes Stefanie believe she’s
beautiful and helps Lalo realize he can achieve anything he puts his mind to.

As heartbreaking as the
film is, it’ also overflowing with hope, and the belief that the good in people
still outweighs the bad, which, after 9/11 and still today, is essential for
our survival not just in this beast of a city, but in the world. In one scene,
Lalo’s father, a worker hired to clean up Ground Zero and hence suffering from
severe pulmonary problems, finds a ring that belongs to someone who died in the
towers. He gives it to one of his supervisors so they can return it to the
deceased’s family. The supervisor does, but takes all the credit for it. He
even becomes a local hero of sorts, featured in the local news. When Lalo’s
father gets home that night, exhausted from work and covered in ashes, Lalo is
watching the supervisor give his best hero speech to a reporter on TV. Lalo’s
father watches quietly and says nothing. The next day, he goes back to work as
if nothing happened. Don’t Let Me Drown
is filled with quietly poignant moments like these, which remind you
of humanity’s better side. And you suspect that it’s these moments—or the
simple knowledge that they exist—that keep all these characters afloat. 

Visit the movie’s
MySpace page for more info: http://www.myspace.com/dlmdthemovie