Yellow Rose REVIEW – A Search For Identity & Purpose

What is the American dream for an undocumented immigrant?

Yellow Rose
Image from film

Yellow Rose arrives at a particularly distressed time in the constant battle for the rights and humanity of immigrants. The Trump administration in the United States ran on a platform that stoked American fears of migrants and any other group that they deemed undeserving of a life in the country, and continues to fan those flames to this day. So it’s interesting that this film, about a young Filipina girl and her undocumented single mother attempting to survive in a small Texas town that doesn’t want them there, is one that has been fifteen years in development. The timing of its long-delayed release couldn’t be any more resonant.

Broadway and West End star Eva Noblezada makes her film debut as Rose Garcia, a typical teenage girl who longs for more freedom from her protective mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzalan). Rose spends what free time she has listening to country music and riding her bike around the trivial Texas locale her parents arrived at after leaving The Philippines, which Priscilla describes as “crowded and hot”. Dad has since passed away, but his love for music has been passed on to his daughter, who has the talent but lacks the confidence and the means to actually record or perform what she’s written.

The pair’s undocumented status becomes a nightmare scenario when ICE agents raid the run-down motel where Priscilla works and lives, taking her into custody and threatening her with deportation. Rose, with the help of her friend Elliot (Liam Booth), barely manages to escape being taken herself. She must now find her own way to survive in a place that she doesn’t fit in, seeking out an estranged aunt (Lea Salonga) and being taken under the wing of a music mentor, country musician Dale Watson (playing himself).

Editors Taylor Levy and Liron Reiter move Yellow Rose along at a brisk pace with minimal dialogue, which works well for the first act in establishing the characters and their lives without bogging the audience down with exposition. The film also benefits from this quick and precise editing style when the story – which takes place over the span of several months – needs to show the passage of time. But the short scenes can often feel disjointed, moving forward before you have a chance to settle into a mood or feeling. As a result, it’s difficult to become invested in the relationships between the characters; their chemistry is lacking because we’re missing out on longer scenes that could flesh out their connections.

Noblezada is able to make the most out of what she’s given, turning Rose into a fully-rounded character. She comes off quiet, shy, and polite at the start, but once she’s finally out of the confines of the motel, her personality begins to shine. The sheer delight on her face as she watches her first live music show at a dance hall in Austin tells you all you need to know, and later, a fierce and righteous fury peeks through as her anger and resentment towards her situation grows. But Noblezada’s strongest asset (besides her effortless singing talent) may be her ability to portray intense and dramatic anguish, as anyone familiar with her roles in Miss Saigon and Hadestown can attest to. As she watches her mother get dragged away and as her own struggles continue to mount up, Rose’s cries of pain and frustration are immediately affecting and moving.

Writer and director Diane Paragas’ script navigates the tense realities of life in the U.S for undocumented people rather elegantly. Rose’s story is ultimately one of identity and having the courage to find your place in what is essentially a hostile environment. Rose has no foreign accent – in fact, Noblezada imbues her with an occasional Texas twang – but her facial features stand out in the tiny Texas town she lives in. It’s only fitting that her love and passion for something as closely tied to American identity as country music is what drives her and gives her a sense of belonging – it’s a rather poignant point that Paragas is making in this particular immigrant story.

The film doesn’t tiptoe around the horrors of ICE raids and life in detention centers. Cold and apathetic agents gruffly remove people from their homes and strip them of their clothes, belongings, and even their humanity by only referring to them as numbers. The most harrowing scenes are the ones with Priscilla in ICE custody as she attempts to maintain her dignity with other detainees, but the film thankfully doesn’t mine these harsh realities for unnecessary trauma porn. There’s an underlying theme of solidarity among immigrants throughout the movie, particular among women, and a handful of simple but telling conversations about life for those living in constant fear of deportation.

Yellow Rose is a solid and occasionally moving story of a broken family doing their best to persevere and hold onto what little remains of the American Dream, but its flaws threaten to prevent it from being as essential as it could be. The story veers dangerously close into white savior territory in the forms of Rose’s friend Elliot, his cousin who just so happens to be an immigration lawyer, Dale Watson and the owner of the bar he plays at, and – most egregiously – a kind-hearted ICE agent who can’t bring himself to take Rose in. These factors could be problematic, but Rose’s story still manages to be about her and her alone, about how she finds her own way through her tribulations and learns to not necessarily rely on others.

“I never fit in, never could win” Rose sings to herself at the film’s opening. “I feel out of place, a song out of tune”. Paragas’ tale of seeking purpose, identity, and family is one that has more of an impact than ever in today’s social climate. It may not be perfect, but there’s still a fair amount of beauty to be found in it.

Review screener provided

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Yellow Rose
Yellow Rose is a flawed but timely and moving story of an undocumeted Filipina girl in search of identity in a small Texas town.