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Case Number 13140

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ESL: English As A Second Language

Allumination Filmworks // 2007 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // March 6th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Franck Tabouring is thrilled he had to learn English as a third language. It helps you communicate with people no matter where you are.

The Charge

One world. Two borders.

Opening Statement

Chances are you've never even heard of ESL: English as a Second Language, a small but wonderful film that scored a handful of awards at little film festivals but never got a shot at even a brief theatrical run. And yet, the film has solid potential to appeal to a larger audience. The plot moves at a steady pace and the main storyline deals with important and timely issues, the flick's production values are top-notch, and the young actors couldn't play their subtle roles more convincingly. Why ESL never got distributed before its DVD release remains a big mystery. Studio execs apparently loved it and said they would have had a hard time marketing it, but that's probably the worst excuse I've heard in a long time.

Facts of the Case

Bolivar De La Cruz (Kuno Becker, Goal!) just crossed the Mexican border to pursue the American dream and chase every opportunity to earn enough money and feed his family back home. Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, however, he quickly realizes that finding a job and surviving as an illegal immigrant is a lot tougher than conquering a fence.

Not too far away from where Bolivar finds shelter, Lola Sara (Danielle Camastra) spends her nights partying with strangers and feeding on cocaine. Lola has been living in the United States for many years now and has great opportunities at her fingertips, but she's currently trapped in a devastating identity crisis.

When the turbulent worlds of Bolivar and Lola accidentally collide, the two strangers stumble across a second chance to examine their lives, learn to face reality, and finally discover who they really are and what it is they so desperately seek.

The Evidence

Although ESL focuses on two Mexican individuals trying to establish a life in the United States, the film examines a variety of issues that should be of interest to any legal or illegal immigrant seeking to live the American dream. In Bolivar, director Youssef Delara depicts a young man who crosses the border illegally and strives to find any job to stay afloat. In the character of Lola, he portrays a legal immigrant who despite having a shot at a brilliant education doesn't really know what she wants. In examining both their ambitions and everyday struggles, Delara has created a wonderful film about two different individuals with a similar problem. No matter what class they belong to, Bolivar and Lola both realize that pursuing the American dream is not a piece of cake. Living in the United States is not a fairytale after all.

In what was probably the best decision for the entire movie, Youssef Delara decided to keep the story simple and completely avoid anything melodramatic or excessively cheesy. Instead, the film steers clear of stereotypical images of illegal immigrants running from cops, hiding in shelters, or joining criminal gangs. It rather draws an intriguing portrait of two immigrants struggle with problems everybody in this country struggles with. It shows a side many Americans should actually understand. An inspirational and quite serious flick, ESL also features a small dose of refreshing humor. Bolivar's language barriers for instance provoke a couple of delicious laughs that ease the mood and positively change the pace of the plot from time to time.

First-time director Delara proves he's a dab hand at helming a feature film. His camera is mostly handheld, and he always stays very close to his actors. The dominant shaky camera movements can be a little strenuous to follow at times, but it creates a certain stressful atmosphere that goes along well with the critical predicaments of the main characters. Add a clean editing and a glorious soundtrack, and you've got a solid drama you wish you had been able to catch on the big screen.

Famous for his role as soccer phenomenon in Goal!, Kuno Becker delivers a heartfelt performance as Bolivar. He also shares a credible chemistry with co-actress Danielle Camastra, who I believe has a bright future in the film industry. They both succeed in convincingly capturing the miseries, regrets, and ambitions of their characters without overdoing it. Efrain Figueroa and Maria Conchita Alsonso round out a solid cast.

Technically ESL serves as an ideal home viewing experience. The movie features strong contrasts and powerful colors throughout, and the video transfer looks perfect. The audio quality on the DVD is top-notch as well, and the captivating music is well-balanced with the dialogue. The film is in both English and Spanish, and comes with optional subtitles in both languages.

Besides a trailer and a short trailer gallery showcasing a couple of other films you will probably never see, the bonus material on the disc includes an enjoyable filmmakers' commentary with director Youssef Delara, producer Victor Teran, and director of photography Ben Kufrin, who cover a wide variety of topics related to the production of the movie. While they talk in length about the technical aspects, including the usage of strong colors, lighting, and editing process, they also comment on their favorite scenes, tell exciting anecdotes from the set, and reveal the numerous challenges they encountered during the shooting. I sincerely appreciate extemporaneous feature commentaries that allow audiences to dig deeper into the heart of a movie; Delara, Teran, and Kufrin are quite refreshing to listen to.

Closing Statement

Whether English is your native tongue or your second language, ESL addresses important aspects of illegal immigration and the numerous challenges and potential deceptions involved in the pursuit of the American dream. Delara's film is too powerful to be ignored, and simply too good to be skipped. If you're sick and tired of the big studio slapstick comedies that dominate DVD rentals and sales on a weekly basis, take shelter in the special interest section at your local video store and grab a copy of ESL The film deserves a solid viewership.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 94
Extras: 79
Acting: 90
Story: 89
Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: Allumination Filmworks
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Filmmakers' Commentary
• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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