Review by Sean Boelman
The NEXT category at Sundance typically showcases some of the most exciting new voices of the selection, and in her feature debut Mija, documentarian Isabel Castro really shines. Exploring important themes in the context of two fascinating artists, this is one of the best documentaries to premiere at this year’s festival.
The film follows a music manager and her up-and-coming client, both of whom share the common experience of being first generation Americans from undocumented families. It’s interesting how Castro takes the traditional structure of the music documentary and builds upon it to deliver something thought-provoking and challenging.
It’s a story that is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring. The portions of the movie which explore the ways in which the flaws of the immigration system have caused these families to struggle are just absolutely infuriating, and the story of these two women making the most out of their bad circumstances is affecting and resonant.
There are a lot of things to be said in the film about the immigrant experience and how the government is mistreating the people who need its assistance. Regardless of what side of the political debate one falls on, that portion of the story is pretty effective at having that devastating emotional impact.
And yet, the movie also explores the American Dream and the opportunities that America can afford. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to see these people rising through the ranks while also watching as their parents struggle to even be recognized. It really challenges the beliefs that viewers may think they have about the topic.
Granted, it does take a while for the film to introduce its second subject. Much of the first thirty minutes is spent following the music manager in her earlier exploits before she discovers the musician whose story complements hers. But once the movie starts to connect these two stories together, it works quite well.
It is interesting how Castro uses the conventions of music documentaries to explore these issues. The performance footage is absolutely great and has a feeling of intimacy to it that really allows the viewer to feel immersed in this story. And the music obviously plays a big part in the film, so if you don’t enjoy this style of music, it may be hard to get invested.
The story of Mija is absolutely amazing, and that combined with Castro’s ingenious approach makes this movie quite affecting. It explores a tricky issue in a nuanced, complex way that never feels even the least bit exploitative.
Mija screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which ran virtually from January 20-30.