SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | March 12, 2011
Director: Barbara Eder
Writer: Barbara Eder
Starring: Patty Barrera, Carlos Benavides, Edward K. Bravo
Metal detectors welcome us to Hanna High School in Brownsville, Texas. On the other side of the threshold, we are greeted by police monitors and drug dogs in the hallways. Trust is not a virtue to be found in Hanna High School, the one thing that the rich and the poor students have in common (other than the American flag that they must pledge their allegiance to on a daily basis) is that they are all bad; otherwise, Barbara Eder’s Inside America works as an analysis of juxtapositions.
The film starts as a group of poor teenagers steal beer from a neighborhood convenience store, then we cut to an ROTC drill squad raising the U.S. flag in front of the high school. Later the ROTC drill squad’s maneuvers are juxtaposed with cheerleader practice and the loud arguing between the poor teens is juxtaposed with the barking orders of the ROTC drill squad. Poor students in ESL classes are juxtaposed with rich students in modeling class. Broken homes — kids living with foster parents, grandparents or drugged-out parents — are juxtaposed with the over-bearing parents of the rich kids. The poor kids get bad grades and have bad attendance records while the rich kids appear to be passing their classes just fine. Most importantly, the rich kids are U.S. citizens and the poor kids are illegal immigrants or at least do not have a social security number.
As we learn during one of the classes, the students are taught that even the poor and underprivileged can realize the American dream (you know, the old Victorian house with a white picket fence); they can be a part of it, work their way up from the bottom to the top. Who knows how they will be able to do that without social security numbers, especially if the political right enacts more state laws similar to the Arizona immigration law (SB1070). One of the more humorous (albeit it tinged with bitterness) moments is when one of the ROTC students is asked to describe the American way of life, he responds: “Following orders.”
Eder focuses primarily on six high schoolers: Patty (Patty Barrera) lives with her two grandmothers (Cary Gonzalez and Jovita Gonzalez). She is turning 18 soon and her family is trying to set her up with a good (religious and wealthy) boy (Eduardo Aramburo) from church; Patty is dating Manni (Raul Juarez), a tortilla factory worker who lives with his mother (Criselda Argullin), a drug addict; Zuly (Zuleyma Jaime) is trying to figure out where she is going to live once she turns 18, because that is when she will have to leave her foster home; Aimee (Aimeé Lizette Saldivar) is the head cheerleader, front runner in the ”most beautiful” contest at Hanna High, and heavy cocaine user; Aimee’s boyfriend, Carlos (Carlos Benavides), is an anti-immigrant ROTC student who enjoys shooting his paint gun at freaked-out bystanders while speeding around town in his big ass truck; Ricky (Luis De Los Santos) is a shy and naive nerdy kid who gets picked on in school, and hopelessly tries to sell cookies so that he can travel with the rest of the school choir to Disney World.
Eder’s feature film debut is a raw, brutal and jaded perspective of Brownsville; but from what I have heard about Brownsville, it is pretty damn near spot on. Inside America is based on Eder’s — a native Austrian — experiences as an exchange student in Brownsville in 1994. Eder dedicates herself to discovering the truth in this story by utilizing non-actors like: real gang members, beauty contestants and illegal immigrants. Inside America is very clearly a critique of an outsider looking in (she seems intent on revealing herself as an outsider by way of the film’s soundtrack), but sometimes it does take someone as far removed as Eder to show the people living inside America the truth.