‘Mija’ Lends Immigrant Dreams a Poignant Harmony

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Two young women lay on blanket on grass with heads close to each other
Jacks Haupt and Doris Muñoz in a still from 'Mija.' (©2022 Disney)

A question for the twenty- and thirty-somethings in the crowd: What’s worse, disappointing your parents or disappointing yourself?

If you are the child of immigrants, odds are that you put your parents first. If you are second- or third- or fourth-generation, not so much.

Isabel Castro’s exceptionally well-crafted verité documentary, Mija, examines this fraught dilemma—childrens’ aspirations and obligations vs. parents’ sacrifices and expectations—from a deeply personal and entirely apolitical perspective.

Mija, which had its Bay Area premiere at SFFILM in April, further avoids the contested territory of social-issue films about immigration through its hot-light/spotlight/backstage backdrop of pop music stardom. About and for a younger audience that lives online and on its phones—people who experience much of life via screens—Mija is a one-take record of a crucial period in its subjects’ lives that also exudes timelessness.

Young woman in blue-lit crowd
Doris Muñoz dances at a New York City concert in a scene from 'Mija.' (©2022 Disney)

The heart, soul and voice of Mija belongs to Doris Anahí Muñoz, a Mexican-American Angeleno (raised in San Bernardino, actually) who made her first break fresh out of college. Muñoz met and befriended a nerdy young Chicano singer, Omar Banos, and became his manager just as he broke big-time as Cuco.

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Muñoz was lucky: She didn’t have to suffer and starve, nor defend her show-business path and ambitions to her parents for years. Even better, her success meant she was able to pay for her Mexican-born parents’ lengthy process of applying for U.S. citizenship—and, for that matter, contribute to her siblings (including her brother, Jose, who was deported more than five years ago to Tijuana).

Mija, which debuted at Sundance and will stream this fall on Disney+, benefits from the trio of editors who deftly intertwine Muñoz’s family dynamics with her career arc, establishing and articulating the film’s themes from the outset. Muñoz’s narration, which sometimes has the rawness of excerpts of an audio diary and at other times feels more polished and calculated, lends the film its intimacy. “It’s wild to have it all,” she says, sometime near the end of a three-year Cuco tour, “while simultaneously feeling like you’re falling apart.”

The turning point occurs when Muñoz ceases to be Cuco’s manager, presumably at his initiative. Struggling to plot her next step, she seeks out a 20-year-old Latina in Dallas named Jacks Haupt who’s embarked on a singing career.

Part mentor, part older sister, Muñoz is by Haupt’s side as she grapples with her goals and her parents’, um, pragmatism—a pragmatism, it must be said, that is not all that different from that of non-immigrant parents who fret that their kids are blowing cash on musical instruments and plane tickets instead of college classes.

Young woman with long dark hair holds perfume bottle in front of red curtain
Jacks Haupt during a music video shoot in Los Angeles, a still from 'Mija.' (©2022 Disney)

While the pop music setting unquestionably gives Mija a glamorous, sexy vibe, there’s very little time and attention paid to music and its myriad properties. We get a scene of Haupt composing and recording a song in a spare office studio, and speaking a bit about creativity and self-expression. But if the words “art” or “artist” are uttered in Mija, I missed it.

The documentary does boast a killer, two-hanky climax, even if it brings to mind Orson Welles’ great line: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” But now I’m being as big a potential downer as Haupt’s parents. Life is a river, and Mija is a beautiful example of a documentary that captures a pivotal portion of someone’s journey.

‘Mija’ opens Friday, Aug. 5 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Tickets for this week’s shows are free and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Director Isabel Castro and Doris Anahí Muñoz will join KQED Forum host Alexis Madrigal in conversation after the 4pm screening on Sunday, Aug. 7. Details here