Austin Film Festival Review: Yellow Rose
Austin-made drama sings an immigrant song
By Beth Sullivan,
4:47PM, Wed. Oct. 30, 2019
Fifteen years in the making, UT alumna Diane Paragas’ Austin-set Yellow Rose is a refreshing and strikingly original coming-of-age drama interwoven with an undocumented mother and daughter’s perseverance amid the threat of deportation.
While a nod to the iconic folk song, the title also references the film’s protagonist, 17-year-old Filipina Rose Garcia (Eva Noblezada), who lives in rinky-dink roadside motel just outside Austin. Her widowed mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzalan), works the front desk and cleans rooms. With a deep love for Loretta Lynn and a knack for songwriting, Rose strums her own country songs on her acoustic guitar. Her songwriting is more serious than that of the average teenager just messing around with a guitar for summer-break kicks, but it’s a side of herself she’s reluctant to share with others, even with fellow classmate and guitar shop clerk Elliot (Liam Booth).
Any dreams of Rose pursuing her honky-tonk dreams, however faint, are soon dashed when Immigration and Customs Enforcement take Priscilla – who, like Rose, is undocumented – into custody after a raid on the motel. Rose’s only option is her estranged aunt, Gail (Tony-winner Lea Salonga), who leads an upwardly mobile life in Austin – a sharp contrast to Rose and her mother’s experience. What follows is a series of setbacks, confrontations, and revelations as Rose navigates the tumult of living and working undocumented all while searching for her mother.
Yellow Rose’s casting alone is memorable. Noblezada’s resilient performance is a promising start to the film newcomer, who received a Tony Award nomination for her performance as Kim in the 2014 revival of Miss Saigon. Salonga (who coincidentally originated the part of Kim in the original West End production of Miss Saigon) is fleeting but memorable. Honky-tonk legend Dale Watson (as himself) is pitch-perfect as the gravelly voiced country outlaw coaxing Rose to pursue her music aspirations, and Friday Night Lights’ Libby Villari exudes comfort like an iced sweet tea on a blazing Texas afternoon in her portrayal of Broken Spoke owner Jolene.
If left in less deft hands, the film could’ve teetered into a too-on-the-nose commentary on America’s current immigration debate. However, the lean screenplay and Paragas’ focused creative vision makes for a singular directorial feature debut that feels like nothing else happening in film right now. Studios are taking notice, too: During AFF, Sony announced it had picked up Yellow Rose for distribution next year.