Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Here and There is as studiously unself-dramatizing as its subject, whose signature song, which functions as the movie’s theme, includes the refrain, “I just want to be humble with real people.” A fictionalized biography, it reimagines a slice from the life of Pedro De los Santos Juárez, a 30-ish amateur musician from a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Like so many of his countrymen, Pedro must periodically desert his family in order to support them, leaving his wife and daughters at home for months or years while he earns money in the United States. But the film doesn’t show those journeys or any part of his life north of the border. Instead, it focuses on the home life Pedro clearly cherishes but is forced to keep leaving behind.
Esparza heard Pedro’s story—and learned about his musical talent—after casting him in a student film at New York University. He then decided to build a feature around him, went with Pedro to his hometown to shoot, and found nonprofessional actors to play his wife (Teresa Ramírez Aguirre) and daughters (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleón Vázquez as the alienated older one and Heidi Laura Solano Espinoza as the empathetic younger one), since the real people were too camera-shy to play themselves. Pedro’s own youngest daughter plays herself as a toddler, radiating love for her father in her few brief appearances.
Méndez Esparza, who’s Spanish, avoids imparting a European point of view on the story by simply roughing out his scenes, then encouraging the cast to flesh them out with whatever words and actions came naturally to them. The four main characters must be good at improvisation, because the family dynamics they convey feel authentic, from Lorena’s initial prickliness toward her father to the easy intimacy they eventually settle into. When the family is still somewhat on guard following his return, Pedro treats them to a little concert inside their house. Putting his hat brim side up on the floor as he plays, as he no doubt does when making money abroad, he teasingly insists that his girls must pay if they like what he sings—and they obey, giggling self-consciously as they toss their coins into his hat.
Four section titles (“The Return,” “Here,” “Horizon,” and “There”) divide the otherwise loosely structured story, which covers one cycle in Pedro’s recurring pattern of migration, into subsections. Within the four sections, the film mixes storylines, like Lorena’s gradually softening toward her father and the dangerous complications that land a pregnant Teresa in the hospital, with everyday scenes of Pedro and his family working, going to school, shopping at the market, visiting neighbors, and so on. Meanwhile, the film creates a strong sense of place through countless unobtrusively recorded details, like the stackable plastic chairs Pedro’s family piles up in a corner when they’re not in use, since there’s not enough room to leave them out all the time.
The cinematic equivalent of a flashing strobe light at a nightclub, Here and There presents us with one episode after another from the life of Pedro’s family. Most of these episodes begin and end in media res, often making the gaps between the scenes as noticeable as what happens within them. That may not have been intentional, but it turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for a life defined largely by regular interruptions and absences.
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.