The most striking aspects of this quietly-captivating documentary are the feelings contained within the light and warmth that epitomise the family’s life together. Long after leaving their embrace in sunny Mexico, the security of the family’s unconditional love lingers pleasantly in the mind – affectionately recalling lazy days with grandparents, filled with moments of silliness, naps and profoundly-moving tenderness. Shot over a number of years, América allows the audience to experience the family’s relationships almost as keenly as the subjects themselves.
Filmmakers Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside have crafted a mesmerising and personal film that showcases the best in selflessness and humanity, where status and personal fulfilment are mere afterthoughts to the concern for one’s quality of life. The love and affection on screen in América are decidedly reciprocated affairs; shared between a ninety-three year old grandmother and her grown grandchildren. With dignity and admiration, the documentary offers an intimate portrayal of family life and the realities of growing old.
Diego is a circus performer who moves back home to look after his elderly grandmother, the eponymous América. One night, América fell out of bed and was found by the authorities, immobile on the floor. Worried for her wellbeing, the authorities arrested and jailed her son (Diego’s dad) for elder neglect – leaving Diego and his brothers, Rodrigo and Bruno, to take care of their grandmother. While many documentaries would follow their father’s progress through the Mexican judicial system, and the sons’ attempts to clear his name, América barely features the brothers’ dad. Instead, the film almost exclusively takes place in Rodrigo’s home and courtyard, where América, the brothers and Rodrigo’s girlfriend, Cristina, live.
Stoll and Whiteside focus on the grandsons’ attentive and patient care of América, who is suffering from dementia and can barely move. The brothers respectfully wash and feed their grandmother, taking her through her exercises and keeping her room spotless. They attend to América’s every call – whatever time of the day or night. Although the dwelling is modest, Rodrigo’s house and gardens are unwaveringly cosy and inviting, with dappled sunlight and comforting touches providing further evidence that their grandmother is receiving the very best care. Inside, the soft green walls cocoon the struggling family. Outside, the luscious tropical garden sparks sheer happiness in the bright sunshine.
Yet tensions begin to boil to the surface, and the brothers disagree on what is best for América. Whilst Diego selflessly devotes himself to ensuring their grandmother is comfortable and content until the very end, Rodrigo is sceptical she understands what is happening at all. He attempts to hold down his job selling pet food, bringing in some much needed income to support the whole family. Meanwhile, Diego throws himself into his new vocation – essentially putting his life on hold to look after América. He can’t imagine sending her to a home, or asking someone else to care for their grandmother. Their philosophical debates consider the very questions of life we must all face at some point.
Despite the heated conversations between the siblings, América diminishes any notion of the house’s confinement through its widescreen cinematography. In carefully-composed two- or three-shots, the documentary often captures family members front on, with their large, kind faces filling the frame. They are presented as a unit; inextricably entwined. The rare cut-ins do not wrench them apart, either. Rather, they underline their bonds, even at their most fractious. The beautiful close-ups of América anxiously holding Diego’s hand, or wistfully remembering moments from a photo album, are poignant and powerful for their scarcity. América succeeds in boiling richly-lived lives into a breathtaking 75 minutes, whilst retaining all of the complexity and emotion that make its subjects feel so palpable and connected.
América is released in cinemas on 7th February