The most satisfying aspect of “En El Séptimo Dia” (“On the Seventh Day”), Jim McKay’s first feature in 12 years, stems from the way it combines a simple premise with profound concerns. Set across one week in the life of a Mexican immigrant in Brooklyn, it harkens back to classic neorealist traditions by providing a window into the everyday challenges of a lower-class existence all too often ignored in mainstream cinema. At the same time, it positions the drama as a feel-good crowdpleaser, a rousing sports movie about characters trapped by their surroundings and galvanized by their communal spirit.
It doesn’t take long to establish the plight of José (Fernando Cardona, a non-professional newcomer like the rest of the cast), who works a bland job as the deliveryman at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens when he’s not leading his soccer team to a championship in the nearby neighborhood of Sunset Park. A good portion of the movie takes place against the backdrop of the borough’s expansive streets and brick buildings, with José speeding around the city and engaging with the various locals who define his constrained environment. As with Sean Baker’s 2005 “Take Out,” which portrayed the struggles of a Chinese deliveryman, “En El Séptimo Dia” is as much focused on sketching out a self-contained universe as it is with the conundrum that emerges from it.
But eventually that conundrum takes centerstage. José follows a reliable schedule, juggling life with his fellow immigrants from Puebla, Mexico — most of whom live together in a crowded apartment — with his fast-paced job, and dreaming of bringing his pregnant wife to the U.S. But José’s stern white boss complicates José’s stable routine by demanding he work on the same Sunday that his team’s scheduling to play in the finals. That’s a week away, and as recurring title cards count down to the encroaching deadline, José winds up caught between personal and professional allegiances, unsure where to begin. His boss shows no pity, his team could care less about employment issues, and José feels the tug on both sides: He doesn’t want to let his pals down, but sees his current gig as the ideal route to getting papers — and bringing his wife into the country in the process.
This setup could easily cascade into heavy-handed sentimentalism, but McKay’s too skilled a filmmaker to let that happen. While he’s spent the last decade and change directing television, he first launched his career with the minority-centric New York stories “Our Song” (which starred a young Keri Washington as a Crown Heights teen) and the HBO movie “Everyday People.” His measured approach to developing José’s story treasures understatement over bigger gestures, and even the suspenseful finale as José’s deadline arrives feels like an organic outgrowth of the moments leading up to it.
If “En El Séptimo Dia” overglamorized its characters or reduced them to archetypes of the struggling underclass, it might be more obvious that this movie is directed by a white guy. But that potential hurdle recedes to the background as McKay works within the confines of his setting, never creating the sense of an outsider looking in.
More than once, he pauses the story to allow for fly-on-the-wall observation: When José contends with obnoxious customers, or pauses in the midst of a busy day to grab a cheap meal, the small details inform the broader portrait of a fragile existence on the fringes of a crowded society. But there are plenty of warmer moments to offset the possibility of a pity party, from the lively evening scenes as the soccer players hang together at home to José’s tender video chat with his faraway wife. This scene marks the sole moment when McKay cuts away from the Brooklyn setting, briefly showing the woman at an internet café in a fleeting reminder of the larger world that exists beyond José’s reaches.
“En El Séptimo Dia” is filled with little hints to the broader disconnect that José and his fellow immigrants experience from their surroundings. Dropping off one order at a boutique office, he exchanges pleasantries with the Mexican receptionist in Spanish, only to find that she shifts to English the moment her employers pass by (it’s ostensibly a kind of code-switching). In private conversations, José and his peers blend traditional Spanish with the Mixtec dialect of their native Puebla, a reminder of the complex roots that inform their identity — and just how much it differs from the posh, vanilla land of gentrification in which they struggle to survive.
But they struggle together, and “En El Séptimo Dia” primarily works so well because it relegates the white characters — saviors and non-saviors alike — to supporting roles. José and his peers aren’t minorities because the movie allows them to dominate the frame. The narrative belongs to the way they process the highs and lows of working on the sidelines of an economy ignorant to their concerns. Rejected by an ambivalent job market, they build their own path. José’s allegiance to this defiant attitude runs headlong into his apparent desire to plant deeper roots, and the muted actor’s never better than when this conundrum registers on his subdued face.
If “En El Séptimo Dia” has any major setbacks, they stem from cheap production values and some shaky performances that distract from the sturdy narrative at hand. José’s story has some obvious qualities, but that’s part of its charm. A fantasy version of the studio system might greenlight this kind of energizing sports movie; instead, it’s microbudgeted and looks like it. In most cases, however, the rough edges contribute to its authenticity.
Once the movie arrives at its brilliant climax, the cumulative effects of passing details lead to sweeping payoff. As José must finally choose between competing interests, his team hopes for a happy ending. “José will save the day,” one of them asserts. Without spoiling anything, the welcome surprise of “En El Séptimo Dia” is that it wrestles with what a happy ending actually looks like in these circumstances — and finds a reasonable happy medium instead.
Its final moment is a form of masterful understatement, with the camera lingering on a solitary mariachi singer belting out a soulful tune on an city street, as if competing for attention with the rush of urbanity around him. As McKay cuts to black, it’s unclear whether the singer or the city has the upper hand.
“On the Seventh Day” premieres as the centerpiece screening of the 2017 BAMcinemaFEST. It is currently seeking distribution.