There’s always an argument to be made over how to evaluate “discovering” an artistic voice, over whether it should come within the consideration of a film (or album, or play, etc.) as a whole, or if it should instead be seen in light of specific accomplishments that color the whole. By the latter metric, Isabel Castro, who makes her feature directorial debut with Mija, playing in the NEXT section, is arguably one of the true discoveries of this year’s Sundance.
This idea of discovery is apropos: Mija follows music manager Doris Muñoz, who began her career by bringing her friend Cuco, a Chicano indie pop musician, to stardom. The film begins as their relationship is starting to disintegrate, first brought on by the rigors of constant touring and communication problems, then the pandemic, which brings their business collaboration to an end. Castro then fluidly shifts focus to Muñoz’s next find, Texan singer-songwriter Jacks Haupt, whose music exists somewhere between R&B and hip-hop. Throughout all of this, Muñoz’s personal life remains coequal with her music industry work: she is the first American-born child of undocumented immigrants and is actively working to earn enough money to finance her parents’ green card applications so that they can reunite with her brother, who was deported five years ago. Jacks’ parents are also undocumented, and she experiences a good deal of friction with their expectations for her and her own artistic ambitions, which involves an extended work trip at Muñoz’s invitation to Los Angeles during her 21st birthday.
To capture all of this, Castro has made one of the most aesthetically pleasurable documentaries in recent memory, largely composed of hazy close-ups that remain closely tied to their subject, and which morph and adapt to the tenor of each scene. Muñoz is first introduced in the crowd of one of Cuco’s concerts, before the film slips into home movie footage, and this movement is carried out with a deftness that seems to carry action across decades. Jacks’ birthday celebration is even carried out with maximum glamor, fully indulging in the pleasures of the moment without seeing it as merely an end-all-be-all.
Mija isn’t a perfect film: After spending a good deal of time with Jacks, it seems to largely abandon her storyline in favor of Muñoz and the acceleration of her parents’ ultimately successful efforts. But there are moving storylines throughout: a wrenching phone call between Jacks and her parents is followed by a restorative park visit with Muñoz; the reunion between parents and son (and parents and birth village) is aching as much because of the long car ride down south as it is in the actual moment of contact. Over all of this hangs Muñoz’s voiceover, which nails some beautiful sweet spot between reverie and clear-eyed observation. Above all, Castro clearly makes Mija both her film and a true collaboration, one that follows the seeds of artistic practice and its indelible personal imprint with a generous eye.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.