ARTNEWSPRESS : More than 15 years in the making, Yellow Rose is more than a love letter to country music and the Lone Star State of Texas. It paints a loving portrait of a young undocumented Filipino American Texan living her right to settle in her homeland of Texas and make her own music. Crafted by writer-director Diane Paragas, a Filipino American with lived experiences in Texas, Yellow Rose can be unsettling due to its imperative responsiveness to the current events where xenophobia exacerbated into institutional human rights abuses – seizures of families, separations of parents and children, and other countess abuses that will reverberate through the incoming decades of America. Without denying drudgery, rest assured that Yellow Rose perseveres with a melodic spirit anchored by the soulful ruggedness of star Eva Noblezada.
On the edge of her 18th year, Rose Garcia has her head in the clouds. Her existence is hardscrabble enough with her widowed mother Priscilla Garcia (Princess Punzalan, played with tough love and affection) in a Texas roadside motel. She shirks her studies to don a cowboy hat, strum a guitar gifted by her late father, and scrawl down lyrics.
Her mother has endured the systemic messiness of the immigration legal system, having been scammed by a false lawyer. Then the worst happens. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known in dreaded headlines as ICE, snatch the mother away. As her mother’s days are numbered in Texas before her deportation to the Philippines, Rose turns into a drifter, veering in and out of solitude and scavenging for help.
The young girl later discovers that the American Dream that neglected her mother somehow worked for her mother’s sister (Lea Salonga, a stage maestro who can be considered Noblezada’s predecessor, returning to film after 24 years). The aunt wants to be accommodating but is married into insecure white privilege. Her caucasian husband is intolerant, despite being married to a Filipino and having a Filipino daughter. He treats Rose as a burden and magnet for legal discord, too protective about the peace of his cushy middle-class life to care that he has the power to help. His disregard prompts the girl to run from what seems like a secure roof, knowing that absolution can’t be found around the toxicity of intolerance.
Through the institutional callousness froths in the backdrop, idealism permeates her odyssey. Try for a lone wolf life she might, but she has a pack to fall back on. Compassionate figures shelter Rose when they can. She has a trusty friend and love interest (a tender-eyed Liam Booth) who drives her places and checks in on her. A bar matron Jolene (Libby Villari) offers her shelter, a job, and advice. She also finds a guardian in country singer Dale Watson (playing himself), who mentors her in her songwriting craft with a mellow tumbleweed personality.
Yellow Rose is anchored by the feature film debut of Broadway star Eva Noblezada, fresh from a Tony Award nomination from Hadestown. She sings soulfully sings elegiac songs, from “Square Peg” to “Quietly into the Night.” If you have witnessed Noblezada on the Broadway stage, whether its Hadestown or the Miss Saigon revival, her pipes radiate with perseverance. You can relish her riff from the distance (or close, depending on if you can afford the ticket prices), but her countenance is made for camera close-ups. Melodic voice aside, Noblezada’s modest disposition can detonate into youthful zealousness.
Orbiting Rose’s story is the dehumanization of the anti-immigration institution. Paragas stages the anxiety within a detention center. A heartbreaking moment occurs when an enforcement orders “no contact” when Rose embraces her detained mother. Her mother glances at a guard on standby, wondering if she’s allowed to criticize the system that beat her down and treated her like a number. Bureaucrats are portrayed as placid drones of the institution. The one time mercy bleeds from an institutional agent happens with an enigmatic miracle in a harrowing raid where ICE agents arrest Rose’s co-workers. An ICE agent encounters the young runaway and pretends to not notice her, and he departs with a tormented stone-face, as if convincing himself letting one young soul go could compensate for the many souls he has stolen before.
Wandering pass aging and humble Texas exteriors, Rose finds warmth and community compared to the coldness of the detainment center. Texas viewers may recognize landmarks and iconography of the Lone Star State: From the Broken Spoke Dancehall, the rolls of hay, Chicken Shit Bingo. There are cross cuts of the daughter roaming Texas and the mother wandering the Philippines. Both worlds are hazed with uncertainty, while imbued with community and consolation.
Wherever Rose wanders, she moves forward even if the horizon is hazy. The movie never wallows but provides breathing time for despair. The editing is decisive where to pick-and-choose Rose’s mundane beats of life and the surges in turmoil. For example, Rose glances at a pawn shop clutching her late father’s guitar. The transaction (or sacrifice) is not shown, but the emotional aftermath echoes later.
I starved for more by the end, for answers about Rose’s welfare, for more of Priscilla’s re-acclimation in her home country. The open-ended closure assures that Rose, lonesome as her current life is now, does have a found family to fall back on. After the final song, Noblezada’s final weary gaze tells us, Rose’s got this. There may be no relief from the system ready to persecute her, but she found her moment of release.
Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10