Review: Maria Full of Grace

Anyone who feels the slightest bit of self-pit about their first year struggles upon arrival in New York City should see this Maria Full of Grace, one of the best movies I've seen this year. It's potent, not easy to stomach, but not nearly as difficult to swallow as the capsules of heroin or cocaine that drug mules carry in their stomachs from Colombia to the United States.
Maria Alvarez is a bright, courageous, and fiery seventeen year old. She is not the type of person who would seem to have to turn to life as a drug mule to survive. But writer and director Joshua Marston efficiently and methodically shows us the forces that both push and draw her in that direction: the meager pay of her monotonous job de-thorning long-stem roses, her abusive boss and working conditions, the claustrophobic pressures of living at home with and helping to support her impoverished mother and sister and nephew, and the simple desire for something more out of life. She is also pregnant by a deadbeat boyfriend she doesn't love. Soon she is on an airplane along with several other drug mules, carrying not just her unborn child but dozens of drug pellets. Not everyone comes to America on a boat that passes by the Statue of Liberty on its way to Ellis Island. Some arrive at JFK Airport and encounter suspicious and unforgiving customs officers.
Marston doesn't over-dramatize material that comes loaded with tension. He catalogs it all with a documentarian restraint, and Catalina Sandino Moreno makes an unforgettable screen debut as Maria Alvarez. In an otherwise bleak view of the American Dream, her spirit reminds us that many who come to America carry the American dream inside them, rather than finding it here.
[Interesting footnote: On the movie's official website I learned that Orlando Tobon, who plays Don Fernando in the movie, plays a real-life Don to Colombian immigrants in New York City. The "Mayor of Little Colombia" operates a travel agency in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he aids Colombian immigrants. Over twenty years, he has repatriated the bodies of approximately 400 Colombian drug mules who died while journeying to the U.S.]