The pointillist documentary, assiduously juxtaposing small, casually grabbed dabs of reality in order to generate a far bigger picture, would seem to be very much in vogue in non-fiction circles. The first half of 2019 presented us with Minding the Gap and Hale County: This Morning, This Evening, two of the year's most outstanding films in any field; now with América, directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside make their own quietly affecting contribution to the form. Stoll and Whiteside introduce us to the twentysomething Diego Serrano, who by day operates a surf shop in the coastal Mexican town of Puerto Vallarta; by night, he performs the darnedest routines as part of a nightclub act, dressed as Elvis in his Vegas pomp, but gyrating on stilts to the music of the Bee Gees. He has a further job still, revealed to us when the filmmakers follow Diego and his older brother Roberto back to their hometown of Colima: looking after his 93-year-old mother - physically frail, and exhibiting recognisable signs of dementia - who just so happens to go under the name América. América, we learn, was being cared for by her husband, until a fall led to the police getting involved and her spouse being charged with abuse of a senior citizen. While we wait for the trial, we're left to watch América's sons stepping in, and stepping up.
How Stoll and Whiteside stumbled across this story - an intimate and painful one, unfolding behind closed doors thousands of miles away from their home turf - will require some explanation. (This BFI interview has the essentials.) What they catch on camera, though, is something major: care, and the burden of care, an issue destined to get only more relevant as breakthroughs in the medical sphere mean we live longer. There's an immediate contrast between the brothers' sunny, carefree days in Puerto Vallarta and the scenes around the kitchen table, where Rodrigo talks of the importance of getting América to shit by herself, rather than relying on her carers to (I apologise for the image) dig it out. América may be recent cinema's most complete illustration of that late-life reversal that sees adults reduced to helpless children, obliging their offspring to assume greater responsibility. It entails some back-and-forth, the juggling that enables the brothers to earn the money that keeps them in travel costs while they strive to keep the woman who raised them alive. Some conflict, too, which anyone who's ever had to look after an ailing parent will doubtless recognise. Rodrigo, more of a pragmatist than his sidehustle as a Buddhist meditation teacher would suggest, ventures that the woman he once knew as his mother is basically no longer present; the dreamier Diego, however, credits América with some residual inner life, insisting physical therapy of some kind will keep the old gal going.
This parsing of mental and physical deterioration - forcing them to play doctor to someone to whom they may be too close to rationally diagnose - is as tricky as ever, and it creates a growing split between the brothers Stoll and Whiteside couldn't have foreseen; viewers will have to decide for themselves at what point they'd call for outside help, or start exploring the option of putting América in managed accommodation. The drama of the film is honest - joltingly so, in the revelation of how dad gets sprung from custody, and then in a heated argument that goes to how these brothers are still just big kids. Yet crucially it's never bleak, partly as all the decisions and actions América's children take are born of such obvious love. Stoll and Whiteside display their own form of sensitivity, endeavouring to tell a difficult story in revealing, eloquent, poetic images. For a while, I was puzzled as to why the film was placing such emphasis on the linen airing on the roof of América's home; then I realised that these are the same sheets she wets every night. Similarly, the directors make quietly insightful use of the brothers' circus training, which at some stage in the film's genesis may have been intended as the whole show. As we watch Diego and Rodrigo clambering up trees, or honing their balancing routines in the family's backyard, the activity not only makes a poignant contrast with their shaky charge, but also mirrors what they're doing here on a daily basis: picking their mother up after a tumble, then raising her up as she did them, for as long as their arms can hold out.
América is available to rent via Amazon Prime.