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Think about Mariana (Paola Mendoza) the next time you’re having a bummer day: uprooting herself and her two children from their lives in Colombia, she follows her shifty husband, Antonio (Andres Munar), all the way to Queens, New York, only for him to suddenly head off to sunny Miami, where he’s decided to start a new life…one that doesn’t include his “old” family. Alone in a foreign land, unable to speak the language, jobless and with children in tow, Mariana’s options look as grim and hopeless as they do scarce. Like I said: there are bad days…and then there are BAD days.

The human spirit is a funny thing, though, the kind of inner power that would make a superhero blush. When someone has the will to survive and the relentless drive to keep pushing forward, against all odds…well, pretty much anything is possible. Paola Mendoza and Gloria La Morte’s extraordinary Entre Nos (2009) is testament to this notion of inner strength, a semi-autobiographical story about an unstoppable mother’s ferocious fight to keep her family together, despite every disaster, tragedy, hiccup and speed bump that the universe can possibly throw at her. What could have been maudlin, overly emotional or obvious becomes vibrant, life-affirming and genuinely resonant in the hands of the truly gifted filmmakers and cast.

While Entre Nos (roughly, “between us”) is about the struggles that immigrants face when coming to a new country, it’s also about how easy it is for people to slip from the scant comfort of the “lower” classes into the abject terror of homelessness: as Mendoza and La Morte show, there’s only a few short steps and misfortunes that lead from four walls and a floor to a park bench. There’s a universality to the film that goes far beyond the nationalities of its protagonists: while not all of may have first-hand experiences with the struggles of being an emigrant to a foreign country, it’s fair to say that any and everyone worries, at least in the back of their heads, where their next meal is coming from.

It’s to Mendoza and La Morte’s great credit that they manage to combine these twin struggles, that of the immigrant and the newly homeless, into such a potent, vibrant stew. As mentioned earlier, there’s nothing overly sentimental or aggressively manipulative about the film: we’re simply shown a woman who’s been thrown into a hole and, rather than bemoan that fact, simply puts her head down and starts digging her way out. There’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to the way in which Mariana sizes up any given situation and acts: she’s conflicted, sure, and we get more than a couple heart-breaking breakdown, along the way…that’s just the unfortunate other half of the human condition. When the chips are down, however, Mariana has a resilience and power that’s positively inspiring: if she doesn’t let life beat her down, why should we?

Entre Nos, then, is about the struggles of the immigrant and the ever-present threat of personal and economic collapse: that would be a potent enough one-two punch for just about any film. There’s more under the hood, however, than just the “big” issues: Mendoza and La Morte’s film is also about the relationship between a mother and her children, about trying to balance being a kid with becoming an adult and about the importance of providing for your family, regardless of the costs or sacrifice. It’s about friendships, those halting ones that begin over shared strife and continue based on genuine love.

This is Mariana’s story but it’s not hers, alone, to tell: characters like the kindly recycling maven, Joe (Anthony Chisholm), or Mariana’s landlord/hesitant friend, Preet (an absolutely extraordinary Sarita Choudhury), contribute just as much to the overall tapestry, but we’d be remiss not to mention the reason for Mariana’s constant struggle: her beloved son, Gabriel (Sebastian Villada), and daughter, Andrea (Laura Montana). As strong as the rest of the cast are, Villada and Montana still manage to shine as the equally resilient kids. It’s a real treat watching Gabriel, slowly, become a man, while Andrea provides a necessary innocence and sense of child-like optimism to circumstances that could certainly be deemed soul-crushing.

Entre Nos isn’t just an acting tour de force, however: the film is exquisitely crafted and looks amazing. Props to Gil Talmi for a funky, head-bobbing score that mixes cumbias with more “traditional” dramatic scores and only occasionally dips into stereotypically “serious” territory. The often gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of Bradford Young, has endless appeal: there’s one shot that frames Mariana and her sleeping children like the Pieta and is almost impossibly beautiful. In the years since Entre Nos’ release, Young would go on to shoot a couple of films called Selma (2014) and A Most Violent Year (2014): you know…no big deal…

Like the particular spot of land that it depicts, Entre Nos is nothing if not a melting pot of influences, styles, points of view and ways of life. There’s a vibrancy and immediacy to the proceedings that pulls viewers in and keeps us right in the thick of things: if I had to compare the filmmakers’ style to anything, it would be latter-day John Sayles, which is pretty damn high praise, indeed. There’s an eye and ear for the way that every-day folk talk and interact that cuts thorough generations of artificial bullshit and gets right to the heart of the human condition: each and every one of us deserves to live our lives to the fullest of our potential, regardless of our individual situations.

We find out, at the end, that Andrea became a filmmaker and created Entre Nos as a tribute and testament to the strength of her mother. It makes perfect sense: everything about the film has the feel of a passion project and Mendoza’s triple-threat of writing-directing-acting is nothing short of stunning. Reminiscent of Marion Cotillard’s powerful blend of iron-will and vulnerability, Mendoza’s performance is utterly unforgettable and the film’s deserves all of the love that it’s received at festivals since its release (although a little mainstream attention might be nice…).

Exemplifying the very best aspects of the human condition, Entre Nos is a film that deserves not only praise for its technical and thematic elements but for its ability to unite us all under one common need, regardless of race, class, gender, nationality or political affiliation: if you can’t understand and empathize with Mariana’s need to make a better life for herself and her children, well, pardner…I’m gonna go ahead and assume that you’re not human. In this one case, the film was definitely not made for you: move along…absolutely nothing to see here, whatsoever.