• Film

Docs: “Mija” Shows Professional Dreams, Fears of Daughters of Undocumented Immigrants

For many viewers, a big part of the appeal of documentary films lies in their dutiful service as cinematic passports, having the ability to take audiences anywhere and everywhere. One downside is that this sometimes lends itself, to a devaluation of the actual art of nonfiction filmmaking. Cinematography, editing, and general narrative craftsmanship that would be celebrated in the realm of fiction is largely ignored come awards season. Meanwhile, a lot of documentaries, especially in the ever-popular true-crime domain, unfold with considerably less visual imagination.

Which brings us to director Isabel Castro’s Mija, opening theatrically this week, in advance of a streaming debut on Disney+ later this fall. A beautifully crafted movie whose quality and critical bonafides are confirmed by its well-traveled festival resumé (it made its world premiere earlier this year at Sundance, and has since played the prestigious True/False, Full Frame and Hot Docs festivals), Mija tells the story of two young female immigrant dreamers. At a time when representation and diversity are such topics of focus, it’s a timely story that highlights frequently marginalized voices. Interestingly and additionally, though, in parallel fashion Castro’s film also belies and destroys the often “otherized” nature of documentaries, standing firmly on its own as a rich, artistically nuanced work.

Mija focuses on Doris Muñoz and Jacks Haupt, two twentysomething daughters of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, each of whom is attempting to navigate careers in the music industry. Doris, the third and final child in a family of five, was the only sibling born after her parents arrived in the United States. While she achieves success quite young as the manager for popular singer-songwriter Cuco, Doris also struggles with what she deems “survivor’s guilt” over her brother Jose being deported five years earlier. Jacks, meanwhile, is a singer-songwriter whose parents are less than supportive of her occupational interest in music.

While Doris works to help support her family, and try to finance her parents’ attempts to get green cards that would allow for them to travel and thus enjoy a family reunion, Jacks strives for ways to make especially her mother understand the depths of her passion for songwriting. Together, the two young women bond over the commingled emotional pressures and financial risks of pursuing their dreams.

Castro is a four-time Emmy-nominated, Mexican-American filmmaker whose short-form work often focuses on the intersections of immigration, civil rights, and identity. (Her debut project Crossing Over, about three transgender immigrants navigating different stages of political asylum, won a 2015 GLAAD Media Award). In her feature film debut, Castro proves herself a perceptive and intuitive long-form director. She makes wonderful use of old home video footage and anchors her movie with very intimate, conversational voiceover narration from Doris, which lends it a deeply personal quality. And she crafts narrative momentum carefully, choosing to introduce Jacks as a subject only when her life and story intersects with that of Doris.


Most crucially, though, Mija is conceived of, on a structural level, like a scripted film, even though the bulk of it unfolds after the onset of the COVID pandemic. It is also photographed with an exacting vision — with active, inquisitive, and off-center framing. Castro indulges a sensibility at once emotionally swollen and playful (at the end of one heartfelt conversation, she cuts to a wide shot, revealing that her subjects have been sitting on a rooftop).

In the marriage of this vérité style and highly curated vivid expressiveness, Mija passingly recalls, in its own way, another recent Sundance offering, Cusp, which picked up the festival’s Special Jury Emerging Filmmaker Award in 2021. While that film’s chosen subjects are quite different (an evocative slice of teenage wasteland portraiture, Cusp focuses on a trio of small-town Texas girls grappling with trauma, neglect and abuse), the documentaries themselves are strongly similar as examples of finely honed, deeply humanistic nonfiction storytelling impulses — their makers’ skills applied to narratives spotlighting surging uncertainty over what one’s future could or should hold.

In the end, Mija is an affecting love letter to immigrants and their children but also an instructive interrogation, unpacking as it does the pressure the latter often feel to honor their parents’ sacrifices. The less-discussed flip side of the immigrant pursuit of the “American dream” are the generational fears and constrictions of the immigrant experience — the embrace of “play-it-safe” incrementalism, and often not being able to see creative avenues as economically viable. Castro’s engaging film sees and reflects this whole picture, in all its complications.