As far as road trip movies in which two estranged characters reconnect go, Diego Luna’s fourth directorial effort, “Mr. Pig,” is not concerned with eliminating or altering the emotional tropes associated with the works of its kind. On the contrary, the famed actor-turned-filmmaker embraces them with a refreshing cultural outlook in a film that is as much about modernity overshadowing tradition as it is about the sheer magic of an experience rather than its outcome.
Financially devastated, probably because of his diligent rejection of current farming practices though it’s never specified, Ambrose (Danny Glover) a 75-year-old African American hog farmer from California, heads to Mexico to find his best friend, an imposing dark pig named Howie, a new home and to make some money in return. The man-hog friendship is endearing, but it also points at the profound loneliness Ambrose is struggling with. Howie doesn’t judge or question him and, like good friends should, they both accept their inherent shortcomings – the plump pig hates showers and Ambrose has a drinking problem. It’s an odd dynamic, but it seems to comfort the aging and defeated man.
Enduring a few bumps along the road, Ambrose and his beloved animal make it to the Mexican state of Jalisco where he meets with his best friend’s son (played by Mexican actor José María Yazpik), now in charge of the family’s hog business after his father’s passing, to discuss Howie’s future and reminisce about happier times. Noticing that his hog’s destiny in such a modern farm will be one of confinement and isolation, Ambrose reconsiders. While he accepts the fact that their purpose is to feed mankind, he despises the idea of seeing Howie as disposable merchandise.
Soon, Ambrose’s deteriorating health prompts his daughter Eunice (Maya Rudolph) to come down to look after him. Reluctantly she joins the mission to sell Howie to someone that can give him a life that measures up to Ambrose’s standards, while also hoping to get to know her father beyond his charismatic front. Two strangers in a strange land that proves not to be so strange after all.
Leaving behind recent supporting roles that don’t capitalize on the veteran thespian’s abilities, Danny Glover commands the film with masculine fragility. He is not a rigid man on the surface and is particularly tender with Howie, but has managed to selfishly avoid his past failures as a self-defense mechanism. Also granted a prime opportunity to step away from her familiar comical performances, Maya Rudolph takes on a character of whom we know very little except for her desire to seek resolution regarding her father’s abandonment.
Luna has stated that “Mr. Pig” came into existence as a way to honor his father and that of his co-writer Augusto Mendoza. That initial desire to scrutinize the difficulties of parenthood and to build a cinematic bridge between him and his father is absolutely palpable in “Mr. Pig.” However, he has also pointed out that this film is a love letter to Mexico, and that it is that second part of his motivation that places the film on a higher ground beyond merely being a touching dramedy about people desperately searching for meaning.
In the hands of a director without a personal connection to Mexico and an understanding of its relationship to its neighbor to the north, the country and its people could have been the victims of insensitive cheap mockery for the amusement of American audiences. Films depicting Americans traveling to exotic or remote locations tend to highlight the cultural divide between what’s considered modern and acceptable and what they see as archaic or less sophisticated lifestyles. Instead, Luna focuses on the similarities between the two countries on a human level by never alienating its two foreign protagonists and much less his homeland
By the same token, the two American leads are far from the images of Americans we often see in Mexican films and television. These are not the white and ignorant gringos that make racist remarks or patronize the locals and who are always outsmarted by crooked Mexicans. Ambrose and Eunice never show fear or mistrust towards the Mexican citizens they encounter along the road. There is never a comment referencing negative aspects of each country, but the film is rather permeated with mutual appreciation.
Mexico is not depicted as this overly colorful almost caricatured land that’s incomprehensible to Americans. Captured by cinematographer Damian Garcia (“Güeros”), astounding landscapes away from the cities are blended with everyday people in everyday neighborhoods selling food, working at hotels, hospitals, or simply lending these two people a hand without taking into account who they are or where they are from. Using Howie’s inability to return to the United States because he is not legally allowed, Luna makes a subtle commentary on immigration and the ridiculous perspective on borders that countries have which overlook real life beyond politics.
Although “Mr. Pig” leaves some elements and subplots unexplored, such as that of Ambrose’s relationship with a Mexican woman in his youth, it also contains several morsels of wisdom related to our search for definite answers or certainty when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Eunice might never have that touching moment she yearns for with Ambrose, but in the quest for it, she might get something much better – his true self. Camilo Froideval quietly affecting score enhances the unfolding family drama on the road with his lighthearted melodies.
A film with such specifically calibrated cultural observations without exhaustive explanation of them could only come from a director with a vision forged on both sides of the dreaded border. Underneath its conventional premise, Luna has taken a step forward in his evolution as a writer-director with a compassionate film that, while not groundbreaking and with some loose pieces along the way in terms of exposition, uses its intimate qualities to speak of humanity at large based on undeniable similarities. If all films about Mexico and the United States could channel a slight portion of the tolerance and sympathy in “Mr. Pig,” our distinct traits would be cause for admiration and not fear.
“Mr. Pig” premiered on January 26, 2016 at the Eccles Theater during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Its international sales agent is IM Global/ Mundial and it is being represented for U.S. by Kevin IWASHINA‘s Preferred Content.