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A watery border crossing

Times Staff Writer

“Under the Same Moon” hasn’t been on screen for more than five minutes before one of its characters bursts into tears. If you are in the mood to cry, it won’t be long before you, too, will want to get into the act.

A crowd-pleaser when it premiered at Sundance 2007 under the title “La Misma Luna,” this largely Spanish-language film brings on the waterworks because its core story is undeniably affecting. The whole movie, however, would be more convincing if the elements around that vital core were more multidimensional and less contrived.

The movie’s strongly beating heart involves the bond between a mother named Rosario (Kate del Castillo) and her 9-year-old son, Carlitos (Adrian Alonso). The two haven’t seen each other for four years, since Rosario left Mexico to work illegally in Los Angeles. She regularly sends money home to take care of Carlitos, who lives with his grandmother and misses his mom something fierce. Their only connection is a Sunday-morning phone call that has taken on the sanctity of a religious ritual.

But it doesn’t take more than one powerful cough from granny to let us know that this arrangement is not fated to last past the first reel. When the inevitable happens, young Carlitos, determined to “find my mother before she forgets me” and helped by an unlikely coyote (America Ferrera of “Ugly Betty” and “Real Women Have Curves”), heads north to locate her.

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This setup has several things going for it, including our knowledge that it is based on the painful reality of the sacrifices and the separations immigrant families from numerous countries have gone through, whether they are legal or not.

“Under the Same Moon” has also done a fine job of casting its key characters, the mother and the son. Del Castillo, best known for her work in telenovelas, looks both strong-willed and beautiful as the struggling mother. And young Adrian Alonso, recognizable as the masked man’s son in “The Legend of Zorro,” practically has audiences eating out of his hand as the earnest border-crosser.

Both of these actors in effect wear their hearts on their faces, a gift that director Patricia Riggen (like screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos a Mexican native now living in the United States) takes full advantage of. A director with a talent for putting emotion on film, she knows how to get those tears flowing, both on screen and in the theater.

Unfortunately, once “Under the Same Moon” gets past that central mother-son relationship, it relies too heavily on coincidence and obvious plot devices. Obstacles suddenly appear and then magically disappear, crises come and go, and nothing feels as real as we’d like it to.

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This problem is especially acute when it comes to the film’s few but pivotal English-speaking characters, who come across as evil or feeble or both. Not only do the Anglos tend toward caricature, none of them have the slightest idea of how to have fun.

The Mexicans, hard-working as well as fun-loving, come off much better. “Under the Same Moon” helps them out by providing great things to listen to. We hear mega-popular L.A. disc jockey El Cucuy, listen to the modern rock group Kinky singing the classic “Superman Es Illegal,” and are treated to the music and the appearance of the norteno band Los Tigres del Norte.

If the film’s other peripheral elements were as successful, this mother and child story would have gotten all the support it needs.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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“Under the Same Moon.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. In limited release.


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