Jaime (Castañeda) never expected to grow old like this. He thought he’d retire to a large house in Mexico with his wife and his grandchildren crowded around him. Instead he’s struggling to make rent at a South Texas henhouse, watching Sábado Gigante on a 13-inch TV, and building a plywood casket for his wife. Jaime faces old age in a foreign country with no health care or Social Security benefits, and certainly no savings account — the very type of person the fence builders claim is taking advantage of our country. Soon he’s forced out of his job (after he trains his replacement, of course), and can’t pay rent on his apartment. With Lupe (Loren), the widow of his favorite son, Jaime forms a damaged family based on a mutual sense of obligation, and the two get a bus to San Antonio, to look for work where Jaime’s other two children have assimilated and found relative success.
At the film’s premiere, former mayor and screening organizer Henry Cisneros described August Evening as “a love letter to San Antonio ... a love letter to South Texas” by writer-director Eska, but Alamo City is no land of golden opportunity, offering only dog tracks, layoffs, and day-labor lines to Spanish speakers with limited educations and no paperwork. The S.A. skyline makes a brief appearance, but for the most part the city is shot like the rest of the film — at eye level, on a handheld digital camera. The intimate, in-the-moment effect suits the film, though more tripod shots would’ve been appreciated — the camera’s dips and tremors never reach Blair Witch-level wobbling, but viewers apt to motion sickness might take a pre-show Dramamine. The camera also rarely grants the mercy of panning out, capturing close-up the unpleasant awkwardness as Lupe and Jaime, unable to find work, are shuttled between family members, trying desperately, if unsuccessfully, not to burden them.
The script, however, occasionally spares us the most unbearable moments, skipping over painful and traumatic events, a technique that unfortunately often simplifies Lupe and Jaime as unflinching Jobs with no hope for divine intervention. Jaime seems destined to live at his children’s mercy, a much-lamented inconvenience in the very lives he left his homeland to improve. Lupe’s prospects are possibly even more distressing: She’s told a menial, repetitive, and potentially dangerous task is the work she was “born to do,” and her best chance at a tolerable existence seems to be shaking her mourning and landing a second, more employable, husband. But she fulfills her duty to her late husband’s family with the faithfulness of the biblical Ruth. And like the book of Ruth, the film pointedly reminds us, August Evening is set in enemy-occupied territory, land once promised to the persecuted. Jaime’s disillusioned friend Salazar (Cesar Flores) observes the irony of their situation: Had Mexico won the war, Texas would’ve been part of their native country, a place where he and Jaime could live without documents or fear, eating food served by gringos. “In that case,” Jaime replies, “I’m glad we lost the war.”
The vérité style occasionally grates, dragging the film to an overlong two-plus hours, and Eska’s arty obsession with still-life shots of leaves, bugs, etc. becomes infuriating, but at its best moments, August Evening is a compelling and well-acted portrait, a quiet, apolitical argument that should be required viewing at any Minutemen rally. •