“Yellow Rose deftly parallels two seemingly opposing groups: the American cowboy and the undocumented immigrant.”
Title: Yellow Rose (2019)
Director: Diane Paragas 👩🏻🇵🇭🇺🇸
Writers: Diane Paragas 👩🏻🇵🇭🇺🇸, Annie J. Howell 👩🏼🇺🇸, and Celena Cipriaso 👩🏻🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
The idealistic strength of Diane Paragas’s debut feature film Yellow Rose carries it far beyond its exposed seams. At times heavy-handed and sentimental, the film otherwise harnesses cowboy romanticism to great effect. The magnetic, multiple Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada plays Rose Garcia, an undocumented teenager who runs from the law with nowhere to call home but the guitar case in her hand and the boots on her feet.
Drawn from Paragas’s own experiences of escaping the Philippines, and growing up as one of the only Filipinos in Lubbock, Texas, the director deftly parallels two seemingly opposing groups: the American cowboy and the undocumented immigrant. Yet a cursory look at Americana values, of independence and grit, instantly reveals a great deal of common ground between the revered cowboy and vilified “illegal” immigrant.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Female filmmakers and a complex female protagonist, who leads a gender-balanced cast, makes for an easy pass in this category. Behind the lens, Paragas and fellow screenwriters Annie J. Howell and Celena Cipriaso ensure the purity of Rose’s narrative which could have easily veered into a tangent on renowned country singer Dale Watson, who plays himself as a mentor figure for the young woman.
Luckily, the story stays focused on our wayward hero, as Rose encounters major upheaval in the form of ICE agents arresting and deporting her mother; a nascent romance with a sweet-faced boy; and moments of kindness and disappointment alike borne through a strong supporting cast. Even among its many beats and subplots, Paragas never wavers from its singular spotlight on this coming of age tale that centers an undocumented woman of color in a country that has proven itself—time and time again—hostile to her skin tone.
The American immigration system comes under scrutiny through the trajectory of one teenager whose traumatic encounters with ICE work as a parable for the broader plight of Dreamers—children who were born abroad but who grew up in the United States and go on to attend college, work, and pay billions in taxes each year, despite living in constant unease thanks to a technicality that they had nothing to do with. Just this spring alone, about 17,000 undocumented Texans graduated from high school, likely mirroring the anxieties, hopes, and fears experienced within Rose’s accessible story.
In addition to this rebuke on the treatment of undocumented immigrants, Yellow Rose features a host of sympathetic Filipino and Hispanic characters, including Rose’s mother Priscilla (Princess Punzalan), Priscilla’s coworker Cecilia (Sandy Avila), tita Gail (played by Tony Award winner Lea Solanga); and undocumented restaurant worker Jose (Gustavo Gomez). Meanwhile, white characters appear in crucial supporting roles, nearly always in the form of saviors. But in this case, thanks to the uncontested adherence to Rose’s story, their roles as mentors, supportive friends, and romantic interests never feel in danger of superimposing themselves on a story about a young singer-songwriter who happens to be Filipina. As a whole, the broad ensemble meshes well in this cohesive, and utterly Texan elegy for open skies and unbound freedom.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.75/5
Yellow Rose forms a trio with recent musical films that all embrace themes of stardom and heartbreak, as told through country music. Some have new stories to hum; Paragas’s take on immigration, alienation, and youth, and the Scottish romp of Wild Rose (2019) about a woman who chases dreams and eventually comes home both feel deeply seated, like honest melodies bursting to get out. On the other hand, blockbuster A Star is Born returned with its fourth remake in 2018, and spent a fourth time following a grizzled white man who seeks absolution through drink and song.
Removing the musical aspect, westerns remain a popular setting for recent cinema. Chloe Zhao’s meditative The Rider (2018) or Quentin Tarantino’s dark buddy comedy, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019) continue to excavate the American western for its universal themes. Whatever the permutation, the genre’s tackling of loneliness and independence holds mountains of material to be mined from any angle. In this particular one, a young Filipina Dreamer undergoes a transformation that feels no less American than the ten-gallon hat on her head, regardless of what her paperwork may say.