Every now and again, a documentary filmmaker finds a bona fide star to pin the meaning of her film on, a figure so compelling she leaves a comet trail of thoughts and feelings after the movie’s end. Isabel Castro’s “Mija” boasts two: music manager Doris Muñoz and singer Jacks Haupt. Make that three, including the writer-director herself. Castro’s debut feature deals with heartache and vulnerability but also shimmers with joy and genuine insight.
We first meet Doris as she peruses the aisles of a Dulceria store in San Bernardino, Ca., the city her parents immigrated to from Mexico with their two young sons. Doris is shopping for a birthday party. Hers, it turns out. “I’m a birthday queen,” the dark-haired, tattooed Muñoz confesses. And her birthdays and the Thanksgiving holiday adjacent to it figure prominently in this film about the status her birth conferred in a family whose members are undocumented.
From the get-go, Castro stakes a claim to a beautiful visual and aural language; the images are often lush and the sound design wise and intricate. The colors from the packages on the shelves Doris surveys pop warmly. A lilting version of “Tú Serás Mi Baby” plays over the PA system, courtesy the Angelino band the Altons.
Muñoz is turning 26. Her work with a young Mexican American pop phenom who goes by the stage name Cuco has been helping her fund her parents’ application for permanent status. The youngest of three, Doris is the only girl and only U.S.-born kid. It’s a great deal of pressure, much of which she was able to shoulder once she found her peeps and purpose working with Cuco, whom she sweetly likens to “the fool next door.”
Bumps in her journey are quietly foreshadowed. There’s a moment when the curly-haired, bespectacled singer experiences a hiccup onstage and a meltdown backstage. “Dreaming big takes a toll,” Muñoz says of their three years on tour. Then COVID-19 arrives, threatening Doris’ ability to be the rock she has been for her family.
Carried aloft on Doris’ voiceover, “Mija” has literary grace. It often unfolds like a memoir. As poetic as it is authentic, the narration (written by Muñoz, Castro, Yesika Salgado and Walter Thompson-Hernández) makes Doris more than a person to watch. We listen in on her thoughts. Hers is a heart and mind that mulls, an internal voice asking personally poignant questions that will resonate broadly for their existential ache: “What am I doing?,” “What do I want?,” “Can I get through this?”
There are highs and rattling lows, but the director Castro makes it clear “trauma” is not her subject, Doris is. So, she braids the various strands of Doris’ life, as if to state an obvious but easily forgotten fact: Life is complex. During the time Doris was growing her career and finding her groove, one of her brothers was deported. He lives in Tijuana, and their parents have not seen him in five years.
As Muñoz arrives at a crucible, Castro makes a seemingly disorienting, yet boldly realized leap. She brings aspiring musician Jacks Haupt into the story midway. For a spell, the movie and its focus on Doris seems to do what any good manager might: recede and make room for the talent. The Dallas-based singer-songwriter, whom Doris hopes to manage, has undeniable presence. (She also has the charming tic of ending many of her sentences with “bro.”) The documentary’s brief trip from California to Texas underscores the similarities and differences in these two lives, but also the overlaps and divergences of place. Dallas is not L.A.
Like Doris, Jacks — or Jacqueline — is the American daughter of undocumented parents. While Doris’ parents make profoundly sympathetic appearances onscreen, Jacks’ parents are most memorable for a phone call that was supposed to be celebratory but turns miserable and chastising. Is there any culture where parents unequivocally celebrate the desire of their kids to go into the arts?
As “Mija” brings the two women together (Jacks flies with her sweet boyfriend, Raúl, to L.A.), it offers lived insights into the pressures on each of them to be good daughters even as they try to live out their biggest, best dreams. Along the way, the movie captures in its loving gaze the places that forged them, the social media that links them, the laws that endanger their loved ones and the Mexican American dreams that keep them persevering.