I wonder how many residents of Gonzales, Texas, are aware that a luminous work of art has been created on the streets of their home town.
That work of art is Austin filmmaker Chris Eska’s August Evening. It’s an extremely low-budget film that is mostly about difficult family relationships between retirement-age undocumented immigrants who have settled in Texas for good and their Americanized children. And it’s a lot better than I just made it sound.
The story behind the making of the film would be interesting even if the movie were not. This is the first feature by the 32-year-old Eska, who grew up in Gonzales. As a teenager he worked on a chicken farm there, as does Jaime, his main character. Eska was apparently a keen observer of his Spanish-speaking co-workers, and he appears to have a deep curiosity about their lives. His immigrant neighbors must have stirred his imagination in a lasting way, because after studying film at UCLA and shooting a much-praised short in Tokyo, he came back home and scared up $40,000. He found non-professional actors (plus a lone Screen Actors Guild member) who, under Eska’s skilled direction, turned out to be not just good but completely convincing in their roles. I didn’t think of the lead character, Jaime, played by Pedro CastaÃ±eda, as a character at all. He was simply 60-something Jaime, a white-haired man who’d lived a hardscrabble life without ever wishing he were someone else, living some different life. He does, however, come to wish he’d had different kids.
Jaime’s disappointments with his children aren’t immediately obvious, because he appears to have a completely devoted adult daughter, Lupe (played by McAllen native Veronica Loren), living at home with him and his wife Maria (Raquel Gavia).
They lead a quiet life together. Jaime does his manual labor and then comes home to watch Mexican television while Maria and Lupe keep each other company. It’s clear that Lupe has been damaged in some way, and that she’s afraid to leave home. She’s afraid even to accept an invitation to dance at a neighborhood wedding.
With her passive refusal to “live,” Lupe could have been an annoying character, but Loren underplays her, doling out the intelligence behind her eyes in a trickle.
After Maria dies unexpectedly, this fuzzy domestic tableau of Jaime’s and Lupe’s family situation suddenly comes into focus. Lupe isn’t Jaime’s daughter at all. She’s his daughter-in-law, the young widow of Jaime’s son, who died under unexplained circumstances. (Eska’s storytelling method is impressively explanation-free.) She hasn’t known where to go or what to do since her husband died. She definitively said goodbye to her native home in Oaxaca when she left; her mother held a “ceremony like a funeral” for her. She doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere outside her in-laws’ rented shanty.
But as long as she stays, Jaime’s biological children stay away. Rather, it takes the funeral of their mother to get Victor (Abel Becerra) and Alice (Sandra Rios) to visit. The two adult children are a study in contrasts. Victor is a sympathetic but weak-willed man. Perhaps he never visits because he’s ashamed to admit that he has not achieved the American dream. But his sister certainly has. Alice is living the stereotype in a suburban McMansion with her simpatico white husband, who actually speaks Spanish, and she’s harshly judgmental of those who can’t make it in the land of the free.
Jaime loses his job not long after the funeral. His wife’s death has aged him, and he can’t hump those hundred-pound sacks of feed anymore. It doesn’t take long for him to lose his little house. When he can’t convince Lupe that she should strike out on her own, they take off together to join Victor in San Antonio.
In a way, it’s only then that they truly arrive in the U.S. Up to this point, Jaime and Lupe have been living in the sealed-off culture of the immigrant. Almost all the dialogue is in Spanish, and at least one critic has mistaken the film’s Texas setting for Mexico. In San Antonio we realize that Jaime is a permanent immigrant, a permanent stranger in a strange land. He had hoped that his family would be his country, but that dream fails.
Jaime sees through his son’s pretense to success right away, and is stunned to learn that Victor and his scolding wife have a son they’ve never introduced to his grandparents. Victor and his family struggle to get by in the barrio, and Victor’s wife makes it clear that Jaime and Lupe won’t be welcome forever. So they leave to try life in the suburbs with Jaime’s daughter, but not before they meet Luis (Walter Perez-the film’s only professional actor), an apparently angelic young man who sets his sights on Lupe.
From here the plot, if you can call it that, runs on two tracks. Will Lupe give in to the entreaties of Luis and begin to live again? And will Jaime find his place in the alien world that his children inhabit?
Given its simplicity, and the apparent obviousness of its outcome, the will-she-won’t-she tension created by Luis and Lupe is surprisingly compelling. That’s mostly due to Loren’s deeply moving performance. Again, her character is afraid of life to the point of being irritatingly predictable, but Loren’s extraordinary face-I could spend paragraphs elucidating the life in her lips and eyes-is effortless in showing how much she has tethered herself to the memory of her dead husband.
Perez’s Luis should be (but isn’t) the film’s weak link, as he seems entirely too good to be true. He pursues Lupe with a purity of heart and a delicacy of touch last seen on screen in the 1950s. He’s even a butcher with a conscience. He’s left the butcher shop at Randall’s because he judged the grocery store not careful enough with its cuts. Now he’s working for an artisanal meat-cutter. What a guy!
His strategy of wooing Lupe by talking about the villages in Oaxaca where they both grew up is appealing, mostly for the way it lets Loren show how the past wells up inside Lupe, and how carefully she tamps it back down.
She makes Luis (and us) wait so long for her yes that when it finally comes, it feels like a genuine release.
Jaime’s case is more complicated. There’s no neat story arc to fit his situation. His problems are more the existential sort: He’s living outside of time and space. He remains a pilgrim throughout the film, and, fittingly, when we last see him, he’s alone, walking on a country road.
After surviving a brief spell of humiliating drunkenness, he maintains his dignity with an almost Roman stoicism. Jaime sees disappointment at every turn-but he’s not disappointed. When he finally manages to push Lupe out of the nest, you might think (and fear) that his life is over. That he, jobless and homeless, has nothing more to live for. But Jaime finds an inner strength and sets out to live the next chapter of his life. Perhaps it will take him back to Mexico, where he grew up. I’d certainly follow him and Eska there.
The story I’ve just outlined could just as easily been an interminable drag as a thing of beauty. The storyline doesn’t break any ground. It’s not even inherently interesting.
But Eska and cinematographer Yasu Tunida make it sublime. Eska obviously has a tremendous rapport with his untrained actors. Pedro CastaÃ±eda has been compared to Robert Duvall (the reviewer was probably thinking of Duvall’s washed-up country singer in Tender Mercies), and CastaÃ±eda, who drives a tow truck by day, was nominated, along with Don Cheadle and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who won), for a 2007 Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead. For the way he brings a simple man to full life, he deserves the accolades.
Eska’s accomplishment goes beyond his work with actors. He wrote and edited the film as well. And for an American filmmaker, he is truly daring when it comes to allowing silence to play its part. Thanks to Eska’s bravery and Tunida’s photography, everything here lingers: the words, the gestures, the late-afternoon light, and the quiet. The cumulative effect of these visual and sonic pauses is deeply spiritual.
Jaime walks alone at the end of the film, but he’s not trapped in a loveless universe. He’s on some sort of quest, and he believes that the quest has meaning, even if it’s a meaning he has to create for himself.
See www.augustevening.com for screening schedules.
Houston writer David Theis is the author of the novel Rio Ganges.