‘Yellow Rose’ Review

Immigration and the plight of undocumented workers is as relevant now as it has ever been. Writer-director Diane Paragas and co-writers Andy Bienen, Annie J. Howell, and Celena Cipriaso have expanded Ms. Paragas’ 2017 short film, Yellow Rose, into her first feature-length film of the same name. Although it covers some familiar topics, the film has a distinct look and feel to it…the vision of an interesting new filmmaker as she provides a glimpse at the struggles and challenges facing undocumented immigrants, both young and older.

Eva Noblezaba stars as Rose Garcia, a 17-year-old undocumented Filipino living in the outskirts of Austin in the hotel where her widowed mother (also undocumented) cleans rooms. This is Ms. Noblezaba’s first film, and she’s best known for playing Kim in the stage production of “Miss Saigon”. Here, she’s the teenage daughter of a very protective mother, and she spends her time trying to fit in at school, while also jotting down Country Music song lyrics in her Townes Van Zandt notebook, and strumming the battered guitar her late father gave her. Rose professes no interest in singing her songs for others, but that and everything else changes in one eventful night.

Elliott (Liam Booth), a friend in her class and an admirer of hers, invites her for a night out in Austin at the Broken Spoke, “the last of the true Texas Dance Halls,” where Austin Country Music icon Dale Watson (portrayed by the man himself) is performing. An underage Rose over-drinks, but also catches the performing “bug,” and loves everything about the honky-tonk atmosphere. The youngsters return to the motel just as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is finishing up a raid, and are taking Rose’s mother (Princess Punzalan) into custody. Rose’s mother instructs her to seek shelter with her Aunt Gail.

Gail (Tony winner Leah Salonga) lives in an upscale Austin neighborhood – quite the contrast to the life Rose and her mother have been living. Gail is sympathetic to Rose’s plight, but Gail’s husband doesn’t want to get mixed up with harboring an illegal immigrant. So Rose recognizes that she’s unwanted and seeks refuge with Jolene (Libby Villari), the owner of the Broken Spoke. Ms. Villari gives an excellent performance, though it should be noted that the infamous James White is the real-life owner of the iconic dance hall. Jolene offers Rose a bed in a back room of the club, something a great many Austinites would pay handsomely for.

Dale Watson turns into a reluctant mentor for Rose, and the two write songs and perform together. Mr. Watson is a natural playing the on-screen version of himself. There is a lot going on here, as this teenager from the Philippines proves she is strong-willed in both pursuing assistance for her mother, and in following her Country Music dream…all the while maneuvering through the obstacles of being undocumented. There is inherent racism in the film’s title (Rose’s nickname at school), but director Paragas never allows politics to override Rose’s personal story.