My Family, Mi Familia  (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

When people challenge me to name the most underrated filmmaker in the world, I often think of Gregory Nava. When people say "never heard of him", I crow that this proves my point, because he's one of the better filmmakers of the past twenty years, and nobody ever heard of him.

He wrote the following films:

  1. (7.49) - Frida (2002)
  2. (7.40) - El Norte (1984)
  3. (6.93) - My Family (1995)
  4. (6.10) - Selena (1997)

He directed all of them except Frida.

If he had decided to branch out to broader subjects, which is to say if he hadn't pigeonholed himself as a Latino filmmaker and a specialist in the immigrants of Mexico and Central America, he might command the kind of respect and name recognition that Cameron Crowe receives. Nana's very best work seems to me to have something powerful in common with Crowe's - the struggle to retain one's basic humanity in situations which tend to strip away that humanity. Both men focus on the theme of holding on to one's soul in a soul-destroying environment. Crowe tries to find real people beneath the facade of big time rock and sports, or in the interaction of kids in high school. Nava chose the special situation of Latinos trying to settle into a California culture that doesn't much want or respect that settlement. The members of "My Family" are deported, incarcerated, given inferior medical care, treated as second-class citizens, assumed guilty until proven innocent, and are never considered worthy of marriage to the cream of California's Anglo society. And yet the story probes into the underlying humanity of the characters, without denying or excusing their often contemptible acts, and without decrying the society's even more reprehensible actions toward them. They are neither villains nor victims. They are simply people.

Mi Familia centers around a large group of siblings of various ages who grew up in East L.A. from about 1950 to 1980. Each of them became kind of an archetype of one facet of the Latino assimilation. One son was a charismatic gang leader. One daughter became a nun and political activist, then left the order and married an Anglo priest. One daughter settled into marriage and her husband's restaurant business. One son became a top lawyer. One son was a straight-arrow who joined the navy, then became the writer who wrote the very story we are watching. The youngest son adored that particular older brother who was a gang leader, and he never got over the bitterness he felt when he saw the police gun his brother down, an anger which was exacerbated when his own wife died in childbirth.

Interwoven with the saga of the primary generation were the family's legendary tales of their father and mother, each of whom walked to California from deep in Southern Mexico. Other tales of the semi-mythical past involve a great uncle, El Californio, a man of indeterminate age who was the first in their family to be born and to live in California, and to whose home all the others eventually gravitated.

The film concludes with the story of the youngest son who, having grown up and become a two-time loser, tried to relate to his own humanity and to a son of his own, whom he had earlier abandoned.

The uniformly excellent cast includes some of the top Latino actors in the biz: Jimmy Smits (who could easily have received an Oscar nomination for his work here), Edward James Olmos (as the writer who narrated the film), and J-Lo, to name but three.

Nava is an excellent writer who breathes life into his characters, and he's also a brilliant visual thinker. Not only do his images look like paintings, but they look like great paintings, filled with meaning and emotional content as well as beauty and technical expertise. Notice the sense of a man's smallness in these images, in which (above left) everyone abandons a dance hall, leaving a stabbed gangster to die in solitude, (above right) the clan's patriarch rests during his walk from Mexico to the USA. That walk took him a year, and must have made him seem very small and powerless indeed.


Elpedia Carrillo shows her breasts and a very brief flash of her crotch in a nighttime sex scene with Jimmy Smits.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

I have a tendency to get irritated when directors use a lot of fancy lighting and filters, and this film does use a lot of photographic gimmicks, but it never riled me. Nava and his cinematographer (Ed Lachman) knew exactly what they were doing.  Lachman, who has done excellent work on many films with Nava, Sodebergh, Paul Shrader, and others, finally won an Oscar nomination for last year's Far From Heaven. (Some of Lachman's unnominated films, like My Family and Mississippi Masala, are just as brilliantly photographed as Far From Heaven.)

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: nearly four stars. James Berardinelli 3.5/4, Roger Ebert 4/4.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. A shame that such a good movie, made in the past ten years, has only five reviews at RT.

The People Vote ...

  • Typed as an ethnic film despite some great reviews, it grossed only $11 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B. If you grew up in an immigrant family, especially in a Latino family in California, this is a must-see. Even if you didn't it's just some great filmmaking. It is well written, the characters are drawn sharply, the photograohy is beautiful, and I loved the music.

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