Review: Instructions Not Included

Record-breaking film Instructions Not Included stars Mexican powerhouse Eugenio Derbez, who also directed and co-wrote the dramedy. Known for his successful comedies in Mexico, Derbez tiptoed into drama in the 2007 film Under the Same Moon. In his latest movie, Derbez continues to prove he’s more than just a lovable jester.

Derbez stars as Valentín, a Mexican boy toy whose life is turned upside down when one of his American flings, Julie, shows up on his doorstep with his baby in tow. When she abandons baby Maggie with Valentín, the audience witnesses his abrupt transformation from irresponsible playboy to doting father.

At first eager to rid himself of the baby, Valentin sets out to find Julie. He crosses into the U.S. in a sequence that flawlessly blends comedy with the harsh realities undocumented immigrants face when crossing the border. Unable to locate Julie, Valentín contemplates returning to Mexico, declaring that he doesn’t want to stay in the U.S. as a “mojado,” a nod to white Americans who believe in waiting in an imaginary line and a low blow to part of the audience the film caters to. After stumbling upon a job that offers him the stability needed to raise his child (the reason most immigrants come to the U.S.), Valentin decides to stay.

Fast forward six years and the father/daughter duo are inseparable. Valentin has perfected his unconventional parenting skills, converting his home into a personal playground for Maggie and pulling her out of school for daytime adventures. Little Maggie is fully bilingual and serves as an interpreter for Valentin, causing some hysterical moments that will resonate with those 1st generation Latinos who grew up translating for their parents.

While it has its moments, the first half of the film struggles to find its footing. Shaky camera snippets and overly long scenes aggravate a storyline that singsongs as much as the protagonist’s voice. Some moments play on tired stereotypes: blue-eyed blondes are equated with beauty, and a trans character is left to be the butt of a joke. The film finds its groove in the second half, when Julie returns and again flips Valentin’s world on its head. Now a successful lawyer, Julie wants Maggie back. Through a series of unpredictable twists, the storyline keeps the audience engaged and adds logic to those eyebrow-raising moments when viewers question Valentin’s ability to be a good father.

“Instructions Not Included” definitely caters to the majority of Latinos: the 33.7 million Latinos of Mexican origin. Its narrow “Mexcentric” humor often flew over the head of this 1st generation daughter of Mexican immigrants, while my Mexican immigrant partner was in stitches. It’s not surprising then that despite its limited release in 347 theaters, the film broke box office records for the debut of a Spanish-language film–something not even beloved Latino icon Pedro Almodovar could do.

The film boldly tackles culture clashes with comedic integrity. It embraces Spanish and dabbles in English, with white characters effortlessly switching back and forth between the two. Above all, the film presents to a nation struggling with immigration reform a heroic protagonist: an undocumented immigrant who refuses to learn English.

The soul of this movie and its record-breaking success defiantly corroborate conservative Americans’ worst fear: the border is transparent, and no wall can stop the fluidity of culture and Latinoization of the U.S. of A.

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